power of incentive

14 11 2008


[By Shideh]    My thoughts on the concept of “incentive”…

What do you think would give Tehranians enough incentives to do what’s good for their city? What would give any person enough incentives to care about her surrounding? To cheat less whether in school or in trade, to respect the rules, to drive properly, to keep her/his street clean, to use public transportation, to turn off the lights when not used, to respect order in lines, to build ethically, and finally to come out in the morning with a smile and a loud “good morning, isn’t it a beautiful day” to the neighbors?




Photo courtesy of Hamed


Why do I see this attitude in some cities, and the opposite in others? Is there something in our genes that make us care and cheat less? Is it cultural, deeply rooted in our training as we grow up and if so, can we change that? Or is it purely a matter of the circumstance? I hear my economist friends talk about the fact that there is little evidence to prove that it is a matter of culture or genes (I’m sure some would disagree). Some believe that most people cheat when they can, any where they can, with any background. What is it then that makes a city like Berlin or Tokyo so clean and progressive in public awareness and that makes Tehran and many other cities (i.e. New York City, Mexico City, Cairo, Istanbul, downtown Los Angeles,… the list goes on forever…) the way they are?

I would argue that “incentive” is the main factor. Incentive is what makes me evaluate the cost/benefits of my actions and make a decision on whether it’s worth perusing and taking the risks.  This automatic cost/benefit analysis that takes place in my head is not only economic (money related).  Much of it has to do with my fear of social embarrassment, punishment of various degrees, and my own social awareness of the influences of my actions on my own future and that of others,…


In short, it seems to me that we are dealing with a complex problem that perhaps could be made a bit simpler by looking at human beings as “incentive” oriented machines that would cheat if their cost/benefit analysis told them to do so (regardless of culture or religion perhaps?). In extreme cases, crime of all degrees may become justifiable in a person’s mind, according to his own cost/benefit analysis.  If this is an acceptable approach and assumption by economists and social scientists, then why not start working on those incentives when it comes to our cities and environment (like many researchers and policy makers already do when it comes to crime)?


Tehran is dealing with a number of critical issues ranging from sky rocketing crime rates to high environmental and seismic risks. I will not talk about “crime” in a general sense, as it’s not my expertise. I will, however, extend the term “crime” into the realms of environmental and earthquake related concerns.  As a whole, our city is committing a crime every day by driving unnecessarily, by throwing trash out the window, by cutting the amount of re-enforcement and steel in construction to save money, by not using proper connections in the structure to save labor time and cost, by paying the city inspector to disregard these errors, by smoking in a closed public room, by wasting energy…

Somehow these crimes are not looked down upon in Tehran, but are in some cases even encouraged and glorified by stamping the criminal as a street-smart (baa-orzeh) person who knows the way to live in a chaotic world.  The opposite is laughed at as “you are too simple and honest or stupid to succeed in life.” To me, the influence of such crimes on the lives of others may far exceed that of stealing and even murdering. A contractor who wants to save money by constructing an unsafe apartment building is someone who is knowingly deciding to murder many to make more money. Why don’t we use these extreme terms to describe the actions that matter the most and affect many?


And in the end, what would give our city, with its unique history and characteristics, enough incentives to choose the other route? What would make me feel that I don’t want to drive today because my cost/benefit analysis says that it’s not worth it? What would make me choose to make less money and build the next apartment ethically? Is there anything to convince me to wontedly decide to make less money? In the developed world, this problem is not fully resolved either.  But it has been minimized by increasing public awareness on the cost-side of the equation and by increasing the penalty (economical and social) to a level where the contractor or the engineer would normally choose to build ethically (while it means less profit) unless there is enormous benefit to worth risking the high cost of cheating.




5 responses

18 11 2008

How naïve!
Because they’re poor! They have deal with such economical/social/family problems such injustice that all of their energy and power gets grabbed by those problems. After that, they don’t have much left to give. And would they do something, It would get destructed by huge injustice, unfairness, out of control violence that some “regimes” promote.
Look at the iranians who live abroad in america, canada or europe : they’re just like any other people : they quitely lead their lives, work, participate to making social life better.

13 12 2008

In response to Tara’s comment:

How long are Iranians going to put the blame of their problems on “the regime”, USA, etc.? It’s always someone else’s fault! Of course those forces play some role in some of Iran’s problems, but what about the Iranian people themselves? Couldn’t it perhaps be the culture as well? If it’s the regime’s fault, then how come many of the Iranians who immigrate to the U.S. still cheat, are dishonest in their business practices, and keep doing “Irani Baazi”? It’s like they get some sort of satisfaction from beating the system. There’s no regime here, so what’s the excuse now? How come second generation Iranians who have never lived in Iran have the reputation of being cheaters in undergraduate universities? My point it is, perhaps there needs to be some self-reflection as well to face and begin address these problems.

30 12 2008

hi Shideh jaan
i was talking about you and your concern about the earthquake in Tehran with my brother today. just wanted to say hi and see how you are doing.
hope all is well!

merry & happy!

7 01 2009

Hi caligirl
The iranians you mention that live in the west and still, behave like what u said are a minority of people. Most of the iranians i know in america lead quiet lives in the suburbs, are educated and all. quite like Shideh.
I guess iranians who live in iran could say stop! no more of that shit of life we live. No more of that huge social injustice.
But they ‘d get caught by the police the pasdaran, get jailed, juged guilty of having had non muslim behaviors and in the end, killed. They don’t have no real freedom.

My sister just got back from tehran yesterday and I asked her how was society going? She said “eftezah !”(=really bad) ” Life is crazily expensive, people are so poor, when u go out : there’s just cars! Cars cars, pollution, klaxons, cars like 100 years old, some others extremely luxurious to the contrary, streets and buildings dirty, people unpleasant with each other, rushing. She had her friends come over one day, one joked : “being able to eat simple fruits like that has become luxury nowadays”

Obama gives me hope yet. By the way happy new year everyone. how u doing Shideh? it’s been a while since you last wrote something.

7 01 2009

Hi everyone,
So good to read your comments. thank you.
I have been away for a while but am back now and will write soon. Please keep in touch and Happy New Year to all of you.

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