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September 27, 2016       
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Research Helps Us Understand the World As It Is Instead of How We Want It to Be
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

picture of politicians
When state politicians are paid more, they spend less time doing legislative business and more time fund-raising (Hoffman and Lyons, 2016). Yet, many of these state legislators whose salaries range from less than $8,000 a year (Texas) to more than $100,000 a year (California) want us to believe that increasing their salaries improves their effectiveness representing us.

What does this have to do with psychology? It shows the importance of psychological research rather than relying on what others want us to believe. In this case, we are told to believe that paying politicians better will attract a higher quality person and allow him/her to devote more time to the job. Instead, research shows us that paying them better gives them a greater incentive to focus on keeping the job which means more attention to fund-raising rather than working.

Understanding basic psychological principles tells us this makes sense. Motivational psychology shows that incentives improve performance. But what performance do they improve? Incentives increase performance that leads to more incentives. Thus, fund-raising for high paid politicians helps them to retain their jobs and continue to be rewarded—for fund-raising. Low paid politicians work for some other incentive, whether it is to help people, get contracts for friends, or to get a better paying job as a politician we may not know.

Our politicians are human beings just as we are—they don't operate at a higher level. In fact, the opposite may be true: I was taught in graduate school that there was an over-abundance of people with Anti-social Personality Disorder (those who lack a conscience) in prisons and in politics.

Another reason understanding this research is important is that this motivational principle applies to our personal lives and not just our public servants. By recognizing true incentives and how they impact people rather than believing what we want (or are told) to believe, we can better predict people's behavior. And as a result, we can more effectively understand and influence others.

Why are good psychologists better at changing people's behavior? Because they understand this. They rely on what research tells them rather than their personal instincts or desires.

For more information regarding incentives and motivation, read: Motivation: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic.

Hoffman, M. and Lyons, E., (2016). A Time to Make Laws and a Time to Fundraise? On the Relation Between Salaries and Time Use for State Politicians. National Bureau of Economic Research.


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