Like well over four million other people, I have been reading (“devouring” is probably more accurate) first Freakonomics, and now SuperFreakonomics. These groundbreaking books, written by an insightful economist with brilliant curiosities (Steven D. Levitt) and a talented journalist (Stephen J. Dubner), explore “the hidden side of everything.” They offer fascinating observations on things like: the effect of a child’s name on his or her quality of life, crack dealers and why they still live with their moms, terrorists and how they might be identified and stopped, realtors and why they would probably be okay with you losing thousands of dollars on the sale of your home, why sumo wrestlers and school teachers are likely to cheat, and a host of other delightful topics.
If you’re not one of the four million plus who have drunk the Freakonomics cool-aid, I’d highly recommend it. Not only do they give interesting observations about each of these topics, but they are able to use economic tools in creative ways that enable them to explain why people do what they do. (Have I mentioned that I find this stuff fascinating?)
Like everyone in the universe, Levitt and Dubner approach their research, writing, and life in general with a particular worldview. Sometimes it’s difficult to see where an author is coming from. In the case of Levitt and Dubner, however, they make their fundamental assumption about mankind explicit.
They begin their second book by summarizing the entire point of the first book: “If pressed, you could boil it down to four words: People respond to incentives.” Incentives are basically the gains—whether actual, potential, or perceived—to be had by acting a certain way. So Levitt and Dubner would say that people are motivated to act as they do by what they can gain by those actions.
Toward the middle of their second book, they state their view of humanity even more clearly:
“People aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated—for good or ill—if only you find the right levers.”
Personally, I find this view of humanity fascinating. And the Freakonomics team gives plenty of evidence for this conclusion. Time and again they present some bizarre trend in human activity and then demonstrate that these people are merely responding to an incentive, whether it be financial, social, psychological, emotional, etc. Some of the most powerful incentives they identify are money, power, and fear.
As a Christian, I see a lot of value in the conclusions that Levitt and Dubner present. But, of course, I would want to explain the concept of incentives in theological terms. Whereas an economist might see incentives in an amoral light—dubbing people neither good nor bad—the Bible speaks of the human heart as idolatrous.
Romans 1 describes idolatry as the fundamental human sin. Every single person who has ever lived has received revelation from God, yet has chosen to suppress that truth. They exchange the truth about God for a lie, and worship and serve the creation rather than the Creator. People act out this idolatry in a host of different ways. Most often, we function as our own idols, and our pride leads us to do whatever we can to build up our reputations, further our careers, and gain comfort and pleasure. Sometimes our idols are things like money, possessions, other people, or even our children. But in each of these cases, there is some selfish motivation that leads us to idolize these other things in the first place.
So do human beings respond to incentives? Absolutely. But is this response to incentives amoral? Absolutely not. In every decision we make we play out either our love for God or our idolatry. But incentives are not all bad. Ultimately, we should be motivated by a desire to glorify God and enjoy His presence and favor. This is an incentive worth responding to.