How should I incentivise my son to excel?

6th September, 2008

Being a considerate father, I am planning a monetary incentive scheme to improve my 18-year-old son’s marks at school. Instead of executing a relative’s bequest as decreed, I intend to spend the €7,000 rewarding good results. During three semesters, he will have to pass 48 preliminary tests, then the main exams in the fourth and last semester. How should I divide up the capital?
Robert Saverin, a grateful father

Dear Mr Saverin,

Start by promising more than you can deliver. If you offer €10,000 for a perfect score, you will only need to apologise after your scheme has succeeded. That may seem to undermine your credibility, but the real risk lies the other way: your son may expect to get the money from his doting dad anyway. Discourage this view or your plan will be in vain.

You must also pitch the stakes just right. Research in behavioural economics suggests that trivial rewards are worse than no rewards, but also that performance suffers when too much is at stake.

Finally, focus on the early exams, because success breeds success. Promise your son €200 for every excellent result in these: that should engage his interest without throwing him into a panic. If things go well, the money will run out before the high-pressure exams. But by then he will have mastered his subjects anyway.

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