Monday, September 1, 2008

Freakonomics and Reading Incentives

What incentive do kids have to read books?


Why read a book these days when you can watch a just-downloaded movie on your iPod? Or fire up a game of Super Monkey Ball on your iPhone? Or plop down on the LA-Z-Boy and watch the latest installment of "Dancing with the Stars?"

How do you get kids to pass up these easier, more enticing, and less mind-taxing options?

I just finished Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The authors explain that "economics is, at root, the study of incentives" and that "the typical economist believes the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme."

As my mind is want to do, I start thinking about all this economics/incentive stuff and how it relates to getting kids to read more. The authors deftly explain that incentives come in three types: economic, moral, and social. Turn the knobs on these three types of incentives, they argue, and the economist believes that he can find the right combination to make folks do just about anything.

So how about kids and reading? Hmmmm.

Economic incentives might work: If Tiffany reads three books she gets $30, or $300, or $3,000. That could get expensive, but you could probably reach a number where Tiffany simply couldn't resist, at least until she got sufficiently rich on your unwise and costly incentive program.

Moral incentives might work: Little Kevin might read if society as a whole looked down upon kids who eschewed the book and chewed on the idiot box. What if a family felt shamed by a child who never cracked open a book? But moral incentives don't seem possible in this case, especially when the society as a whole prefers to collectively drool at the feet of "Deal of No Deal." Just not gonna happen.

Social pressure would work: This is the one knob I would suggest turning. Right now, kids who read a lot are made fun of, are teased, or called book geeks/nerds/pinheads, etc. That knob would have to be cranked back 180 degrees the other way. To me, this seems do-able. I'm not exactly sure how, but if kids by and large treated things like the latest Percy Jackson book as the must-have accessory for the Fall Season, books would be back in favor. But what's the plan? How do you make that happen? I haven't seen the show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" but that might be a place to start—sadly, it's another ding-dang TV show!

I'll think on it. Let me know if you come up with anything—of course not until after "Deal or No Deal."