As I stated previously, the most important question in determining if a policy is helpful or harmful is to analyze if we are rewarding good choices or bad choices. Often a reward consists not in providing positive consequences but in reducing negative consequences. We all make choices every day. Frequently we have to choose between short-term satisfaction versus long term goals. More often than not, the short-term wins out.
I know this well. I have been fighting my weight all of my life. I have been a lifetime weight watchers member at or around goal for about eight years now. It never stops being a struggle, and frequently I make bad choices. When I am hungry and a cookie is in front of me, it is like the sirens calling to ancient Greek sailors, and I jump into the sea to dive after my cookie with all of my weight control goals forgotten at the moment. These are terrible mixed metaphors, but hopefully I am making my point clear.
Let’s say that 50% of the time I control myself and 50% of the time I eat the cookie. I go for the cookie because the satisfaction is imminent and the tie to the goal is vague and distant. If I was diabetic and I had been told that if ate the cookie there would be severe, immediate health risks then maybe 10% of the time I would eat the cookie. If I had a severe allergy and I knew that eating that cookie would probably kill me on the spot, I would never eat the cookie. As the consequences of a bad choice become more severe, I am less likely to make the bad choice.
On November 27, 2013 the New York Times reported that a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that unprotected sex by gay men is sharply increasing. The AIDS scare had previously caused a large drop in unprotected sex. With recent drug treatments, however, AIDS is no longer seen as a death sentence; it is seen as a manageable condition.
“Young guys are less worried,” said Alex Carballo-Diéguez, a researcher at the H.I.V. Center of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University who has studied gay men’s behavior since the 1980s. “H.I.V. has become a chronic disease, and everyone knows some behaviors are bad for you, like smoking and trans fats. But in the moment of excitement, they’re going to do what they enjoy.”
Nobody wants to get AIDS, but people do want to have unprotected sex. As the perceived negative consequences of a bad choice diminish, we get more bad choices.
Stopping people from dying from AIDS is a good thing and I am certainly not recommending that we let people die. This is not a policy issue. It is an illustration of the way things are. This principle needs to be applied, however, to policy issues. In my last post I discussed how indefinitely extending unemployment insurance. Most people do not want to be unemployed any more than they want to get AIDS, but by reducing the negative consequences of unemployment, we are rewarding the bad choices that stop people from getting employed.
You get what you reward. You get what you punish less.