How can I bring my son to book?

16th January, 2010

Dear Economist,
This Christmas, I asked my three children, aged 19, 18 and 16, for the following present: that they read the book Notte, Nebbia, a true story set in Gusen concentration camp, to help them remember the importance of tolerance, justice and freedom. This was also a condition of them receiving their Christmas presents, three presents for each child.
The girls read the book and received their presents. The boy (18) didn’t finish it. He said he couldn’t read a sad story during his holidays. So he received only two presents. What am I supposed to do? To hide the last present until next Christmas? To ask my son to finish the book and to read another one as a penance, or to think in a different way? Am I insane?
Francoise Gilli

Dear Francoise,

It is hardly insane to give your children incentives to do your bidding, but you have clearly bodged this scheme.

First, behavioural economists have found that offering miserly incentives can discourage people, relative to no incentives at all. Your incentive was a gift that most children tend to expect with no strings attached, which seems a miserly payment. No wonder your son disobeyed you, and I doubt if your daughters were quite as compliant as you imagine.

Second, you made a fundamental error by making a non-credible threat. You tacitly admit that it would be silly to hide the present until next Christmas, while demanding a second book compounds your folly. Game theory says that non-credible threats will be ignored, and your son is evidently a game theorist.

This is a lost cause. If you wish to control your children’s reading, I advise a significant incentive payment on top of the customary present. Alternatively you could simply recommend a book wholeheartedly. They may not read it, but at least you will look less foolish.

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