Barry Schwartz: Pay attention to the least of us

The effect of institutions relying too heavily on rules and incentives has been the gradual erosion of nurturing wisdom, says the co-author of “Practical Wisdom.”

Many organizations today use rules and incentives to try to get their employees to do the right thing, said Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College. Some public school systems, for example, require teachers to work from scripted lesson plans and offer monetary bonuses if a certain percentage of students pass end-of-grade tests.

Such rules and incentives can work, but “the trouble is they rarely work in the sense of getting us what we actually want,” said Schwartz, the author or co-author of seven books, including “The Paradox of Choice,” “The Costs of Living” and “Learning and Memory.”

“What they do is prevent disaster and, simultaneously, they guarantee mediocrity,” he said. “So if your mission is to prevent disaster in the school system, then by all means get a bunch of mediocre teachers and give them scripts to follow and bonuses if their kids do well.”

The culminating effect of this: a demoralizing environment that fails to encourage practical wisdom -- the focus of Schwartz’s latest book, “Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing,” which he co-wrote with Kenneth Sharpe, a political science professor at Swarthmore.

Drawing on Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” Schwartz and Sharpe define practical wisdom as “a particular social practice performed well,” which means “figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time.”

“I have spent 30 years actively criticizing the view of human nature that is expressed by economists and embodied in most of our institutions: Everybody is selfish, a materialist and wants to maximize their own self-interest; and if you get the right incentives in place, society will run like a well-oiled machine,” said Schwartz, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and joined Swarthmore College in 1971.

“I think none of us actually think that is true,” he said. “And this latest book [‘Practical Wisdom’] is continuous with things I have been writing about for 25 years. You need to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because someone is going to pay you.”

Schwartz spoke with Faith & Leadership about his latest book and how leaders and organizations can nurture practical wisdom. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What led to the writing of “Practical Wisdom”?

Kenneth Sharpe and I have been teaching a course on practical wisdom for close to a decade, and it grew out of our previous work together on some of the limits of liberal individualism as a sort of guiding moral force in American society. What we came to realize is that there is really no substitute for character in people.

We as a society have tried to avoid conversations about character, because we probably can’t agree as a society about what good character consists of. Instead, we rely on things like rules and incentives so that even people of somewhat questionable character wind up doing the right thing.

As we looked around at the American responses to the financial collapse and American responses to the failure of public education, it became increasingly clear that pretty much everywhere you looked in society, things were not working and people were looking in the wrong places to fix them.

Q: Why has this happened?

What I think is that institutions used to have a clear sense of what their mission was -- what Aristotle would call their telos, the goal and the point of their existence. It was self-evident to people who went for medical training what the point of being a doctor was. In law, there was the need to support legal institutions and seek justice while also advocating for your clients. In education, it was to give information to students and get them excited so that they will continue to get information for themselves. The goals were clear and the question was how you get to those goals.

I don’t think it’s like a light switch getting flicked -- yesterday everyone was wise, and today nobody is -- but there’s been this gradual erosion of a willingness on the part of American society to stand for what the point is of many of our activities.

I don’t know that we as a society ever particularly paid attention to nurturing wisdom in people, but we probably allowed wisdom to develop by not micromanaging people. Part of the point of our book is that the way people learn to be wise is by trying and failing and learning from their mistakes, and if you’re being micromanaged, you don’t get the opportunity to do that.

Q: In your book you refer to institutions that suppress practical wisdom as demoralizing, and you focus on three institutions: K-12 public schools, medicine and law. Take one of these institutions and explain how micromanaging and a reliance on rules and incentives lead to demoralization.

In the case of education, everyone knows that public education is failing us, and the solution that people have come up with is a two-part solution. One: Teachers are mediocre. We can’t trust their judgment. Let’s give them scripts to follow. Let’s rigidly specify the curriculum so that we essentially make it idiot-proof. And increasingly, that’s what the school districts are doing; they’re giving scripts for every lesson, and teachers are told, “Don’t deviate from the script.”

Now, of course, I don’t think anyone goes into teaching because they’re all excited that they’re going to be following a script every day. That’s not why you become a teacher, but it has become the way you have to teach if you’re going to survive in many, many, many school districts.

In addition, [public education has] started incentivizing. If x percent of the school does well on these big tests at the end of the year, there are bonuses. And so the reason for following the script is to get something.

Our argument is that this demoralizes in two senses: It demoralizes the people who are teaching, and it demoralizes the profession of teaching; it robs it of its moral content.

With doctors, it’s increasingly all about doing procedures, getting fees, managing to see patients for seven-minute office visits so that the economics of your medical practice will work out, and it becomes less and less about easing suffering and curing disease. There are an awful lot of doctors who are extremely disenchanted with what it means to practice medicine in modern America. They’re demoralized.

Q: You discuss the difference between performance motivation and mastery motivation in “Practical Wisdom.” How does motivation relate to this demoralization?

This distinction between performance motivation and mastery motivation comes from the work of psychologist Carol Dweck and her research with kids.

Kids who are performance-oriented seek approval. What that means is they like assignments that are easy so that they can demonstrate how competent they are. What it also means, to me, is that when they encounter failure, they sort of get into a black mood, and they give up.

Kids who are mastery-oriented are not interested in approval, and they’re not interested in demonstrating their competence; they’re interested in building their competence. So when these kids encounter something difficult and something they get wrong, they get a gleam in their eye, and they’re all excited. “Ah! I got this wrong. Now is the chance to learn something I didn’t already know.”

What Dweck finds is that over time, the difference between performance-oriented and mastery-oriented kids keeps growing bigger and bigger and bigger, because mastery-oriented kids seek and welcome challenges and learn from failures.

This work is all done with kids and adolescents, so what I’m about to say is an extrapolation and there’s no hard evidence for it as far as I know, but the critical thing, if you’re running an organization that involves adults, is you want to encourage this orientation to mastery.

Q: What is your advice to leaders and managers?

Let me make this point by example. In our book, we talk about janitors who work in a hospital. They are the lowest of the low on the hierarchy. They’ve got this long list of things to do: empty trash, wash the floors, sweep -- this, that, the other thing.

No item on their list involves any interaction with other people, and yet many of the people who have this job see themselves as playing an essential role in patient care. They try to cheer them up; they try to figure out whether family members who are visiting need to be left alone so they can take a nap or whether they should be interacted with; and so on.

It’s very striking. These people are typically invisible both to the doctors and to the patients, yet they play an essential role.

The point is that you have to make sure that the mission and the ideal practices that you try to exemplify are manifested all the way through the organization, from the head all the way down to the bottom.

This is not an easy thing to do. It requires being attentive to people who you would probably be inclined to ignore. But if the message filters all the way down the hierarchy, then what’s going to happen is it’s going to get reinforced in a dozen different ways every day in the way people who work with you interact with one another.

So that’s an important thing to keep in mind: Pay attention to the least of us.

Q: How do you teach practical wisdom to your students?

I don’t. All I try to do is get them to appreciate why it’s important and what kinds of circumstances facilitate and what kinds of circumstances impede the development of practical wisdom so that when they’re looking for work or looking at professional schools, this is a relevant consideration. And in 10 years, when they start running organizations, they’ll take pains to make those organizations work in a way that nurtures wisdom.

But it would be presumptuous of us to think that we knew how to teach people -- students -- how to be wise. It does raise an interesting question, though, which we don’t talk about in the book -- that is, whether academic institutions can do anything to promote character in general and wisdom in particular.

As near as I can tell, it’s possible that religiously affiliated institutions have this as part of their mission, but there are real, intellectual virtues that we need to be inculcating in our students, and they are virtually never discussed.

So I would love to see academic institutions ask the question, “What virtues does it take to be a serious student? What do we do to encourage and nurture those virtues, and what do we do to impede them?” This is not a conversation that I’ve seen happening in any place.