Last night, I rode the bus into downtown Chicago. One of the patrons in the back of the bus was blaring offensive rap music (i.e., as nearly as I could tell, the lyrics were 1/4 swear words, 1/2 offensive to women, and 1/4 about violence). Not only was this guy blaring the music, but he was singing every word. Other bus riders were clearly bothered by the display, but everyone was too intimidated to confront the guy. So, he kept on rapping to his soundtrack.
After I got past being disturbed by the scene, I had to wonder about why this guy would bother committing those lyrics to memory. The guy could clearly go on for hours repeating the words to the exact rhythm that the recording artist intended. It probably took some serious work to develop the ability to spout off those lyrics. How much time did it take for him to learn all of the lyrics? More importantly, how was he ever convinced to devote so much time to this task? He obviously has some cognitive skill. Why not apply that skill elsewhere?*
As an economist, I view behavior as a response to a system of rewards. These rewards can be intrinsic (e.g., sense of purpose, fulfilling a lifelong goal, etc.) or extrinsic (e.g., money, "learn this rap song or you can't be a member of our gang," etc.). These motivations can be powerful in determining what someone will do. Which rewards work is a matter of context. For some interesting background on this, see this awesome video (HT: Jodi Beggs):
By the way, I was fascinated by how they synchronized the talk with the white board artist's animation.
Another note: My friend Dana Chandler has been looking into what motivates people in a series of experiments on online labor markets. He's trying to isolate the effect of context on productivity. In a broader context, this is quite relevant for how labor markets work (it's not just about paying the employee their reservation wage). Interesting and important stuff.
That brings me to my poll question of the week.
Why would someone work for free?
(a) He/she already has enough to eat.
(b) Sense of purpose
(c) It's not work. It's leisure.
(d) There's no possible reason/ erratic behavior
As with all of my polls, this poll is open for a week. So, vote early and often. Tell your friends to vote. Watch the video and read Dana's paper. I won't pay you, but think of the higher purpose.
*For all I know, this guy could be an investment banker, but he was loudly singing rap lyrics on the back of a public bus. If he is an investment banker, he went out of his way to pursue this hobby.