The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H.
David Himmelstein, M.D.
Dan Ariely, Ph.D.
Mark Almberg, communications director PNHP, (312) 782-6006,

Financial Incentives May Sap Motivation, Undermine Quality: Health Affairs Article

Recent findings in behavioral economics may help explain how pay-for-performance schemes in health care can ‘crowd-out’ intrinsic motivation and worsen performance


A leading authority on behavioral economics has teamed up with two health policy experts in an article at the Health Affairs blog to argue that pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes in medicine may do more harm than good by "crowding out" altruism and other intrinsic motivations to do a good job.

Such P4P schemes, which are being quickly adopted by Medicare and many private insurers under the new federal health law, typically involve giving bonuses to doctors and hospitals for hitting specific, numerical targets in such matters as prescribing certain drugs or ordering screening tests.

However, despite the widespread rush to embrace P4P, a growing body of research has found no evidence that these schemes actually benefit patients, write professor Dan Ariely and physicians Dr. Steffie Woolhandler and Dr. David Himmelstein. Their article was posted to the blog late Thursday afternoon.

Moreover, it's likely the introduction of such schemes into the cognitively complex work of medicine will backfire, they say.

"Traditionally, economists have viewed extrinsic (i.e. monetary) reward as either the only motivator or as simply additive to intrinsic motivators such as purpose, altruism, mastery, or autonomy," the authors write.

"According to this view, higher pay induces better performance. But this simple model of reward-induced performance ignores the complexity of human drive, particularly the role of intrinsic motivation - the desire to perform an activity for its own inherent rewards.

"Offering your dinner-party host a $10 reward for cooking a wonderful meal isn't likely to motivate future invitations."

The authors cite multiple research studies - involving blood donors in the United States, volunteer workers in Switzerland, and Israelis with children in day care, to name just a few - that show how introducing financial incentives into the picture led to diminished motivation to do the right thing.

They also cite a meta-analysis summarizing 128 studies that show such findings are representative of a consistent body of research.

In addition, the authors warn that "crowd-out" of doctors' intrinsic motivation may be particularly severe when contracts are more detailed and controlling. P4P incentives may also lead providers to game the system by checking boxes or exaggerating diagnoses when they know that doing so will garner bonuses.

Pay-for-performance programs also increase administrative costs, they say, citing the extensive economics literature on the downsides of overly detailed contracts.

The authors are recognized experts in their respective fields. Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He is the author of numerous research studies and three bestselling books on behavioral economics, including "The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty."

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler and Dr. David Himmelstein are physicians and professors at the City University of New York's School of Public Health at Hunter College and visiting professors of medicine at Harvard Medical School. They have published many articles in leading medical journals on health insurance and mortality, medical bankruptcy and administrative costs in health care, among other subjects. They are also co-founders of Physicians for a National Health Program, a single-payer advocacy group. PNHP provided no financial or other support for their research.

Physicians for a National Health Program is a single issue organization advocating a universal, comprehensive single-payer national health program. PNHP has more than 21,000 members and chapters across the United States.