The Consequences of Overly Strong Incentives: Wells Fargo, Baseball Baptisms, and Academic Advancement

Link to Michael Quinn’s Sunstone article “I-Thou vs. I-It Conversions: The Mormon ‘Baseball Baptism’ Era.” 

This recent news about Wells Fargo (see for example Wells Fargo Warned Workers Against Sham Accounts, but ‘They Needed a Paycheck’) shows how overly strong incentives can cause people to cheat–especially if some of the higher-ups are OK with the cheating. Similar problems have occurred when teacher’s careers depend critically on student test scores. 

Even in a religious context, the same danger of overly strong incentives leading to cheating in the sense of low-quality production can be a problem. In particular, the recent news about Wells Fargo reminded me of the “Baseball Baptism” era in Mormon proselyting when young men were acceptance Mormon baptism primarily because it was a requirement for belonging to a sports team. In the words of Michael Quinn in the article linked above:

… disadvantaged children and teen-agers may be eager to be dunked under water as the only requirement for a free trip to the beach or for membership in a sports club sponsored by a church. 

Why would missionaries pursue such a course when people accepting baptism on such terms are unlikely to remain participating members of the Mormon Church for long? Here is Michael Quinn’s answer:

In the I-It relationship, performing baptisms is also a means for the missionary to gain something earthly. The missionary may want the praise of family and Church leaders for adding converts to the faith. Some missionaries use convert as a way to gain the personal “testimony” of the gospel that was absent in their pre-mission experience. The missionary may seek a sense of self-worth through baptizing others. Missionaries may believe that their eternal glory grows with each new convert. They may think that God’s love for them increases with each person they bring into his kingdom. The missionary may expect that performing more baptisms will increase the chances of advancement in Church office. The missionary may enjoy the “rush of competing with other missionaries to see who can baptize the most persons or which mission can "out-baptize” the other missions of the world. And-again in the main subject of this essay-Church leaders may put such intense pressures of reward or disfavor on a missionary’s baptismal numbers that young missionaries will do anything–anything–to satisfy those demands. In all of the above examples of I-It missionary work, potential converts and actual converts are only objects to fulfill the various goals of a missionary That is true whether a missionary’s I-It emphasis results in a single baptism or in thousands.

In “The Message of Mormonism for Atheists Who Want to Stay Atheists” I emphasized the motive of advancement in rank–a motive whose strength is hard to understand without a little more background:

While on a mission, missionaries are urged to work even harder to “get a testimony”—subjective spiritual experiences that will convince them the Mormon Church is true.  In addition, they are motivated to work hard by a system of promotions in rank no doubt devised by one of the many middle-aged businessmen who take three years off from a regular job to serve as a “Mission President”–the head of a group of 150 or so young missionaries in a particular region.  Mormon missionaries always travel in twos, so they can keep each other from getting into trouble–and in other countries to make sure that one of them has been there long enough to be able to speak the language reasonably well.  A missionary starts out as a junior companion.  It is a big day when a missionary finally makes it to being a senior companion.  Later on, the missionary can hope to be promoted to District leader over three to seven other missionaries, to a Zone leader over, say, nineteen, and maybe even to being an assistant to the Mission President.  It is hard to communicate how much we as missionaries cared about those promotions.  And of course, there could be demotions in the form of being exiled to a remote district where it was especially hard to make converts.

The Mission Presidents, who, as I mentioned, often have business experience, also devise many other motivational strategies akin to those in the world of sales.

I greatly admire Michael Quinn as a historian who has done so much to illuminate Mormon history–even against the wishes of Mormon church leaders. I heard him present his work on the Baseball Baptism Era at a Sunstone Symposium. (Sunstone is an independent magazine about Mormonism that many Mormon church leaders wish didn’t exist. The Sunstone organization also puts on conferences.) I told of a phenomenon similar to Baseball Baptisms that occurred in the Tokyo South Mission of the Mormon Church while I was a missionary in the neighboring, but much more sedate Tokyo North Mission from 1979-1981. Here is how Michael Quinn wrote that up:

Was the baseball baptism era an unparalleled aberration in Mormon experience? Not from what a number of more recent LDS missionaries have told me. Most of the “well-known salesmanship techniques” remained in the missionary lessons and program. …

Early in 1980, a mission president in Japan used lavish dinners and other rewards as “incentives” for missionaries to reach baptism goals. The mission abbreviated the lesson-plan so that missionaries spent no more than an hour with “investigators” before baptizing them. This program was “encouraged by the general authority who was acting as an area president without counselors.” Presidency counselor Gordon B. Hinckley asked missionaries about these developments just before the dedication of the Tokyo temple that October. He ended the program by reinstituting the requirement for persons to attend at least one LDS meeting before baptism.

I was Gordon B. Hinckley’s main missionary informant about this, since when my grandfather Spencer W. Kimball–then the head of the Mormon Church–came to dedicate the new Tokyo Temple, I was invited (along with my missionary companion–we always did everything in pairs) to spend a few days away from my regular missionary duties to accompany him and my grandmother Camilla Eyring Kimball. That also put me in close contact with Gordon B. Hinckley. I remember Gordon Hinckley’s talk to the missionaries saying that conversion involved not only believing the doctrine of Mormonism but also “a decision to throw in their lot with us.” In addition imposing the requirement of attending at least one church meeting before baptism, Gordon B. Hinckley urged that “investigators” read his brief history of the Mormon Church: Truth Restored.

Even after that, at the time my 2-year missionary service was over, things baptisms of a sort were still coming thick and fast in the Tokyo South mission. My brother Jordan came to meet me and I had the chance to tour Japan a bit. One of the things we did was to visit a classmate of mine from Harvard who was serving in the Tokyo South mission. I saw the makeshift baptismal font set up in a missionary apartment. I got a copy of their very abbreviated lesson plan and heard about how they often represented baptism as part of joining a cool club.

During my mission, I was a bit envious of the much better statistics we heard about from the Tokyo South mission. But in retrospect, I was very grateful that I had a Mission President with more integrity than that: Michael Roberts.

The Moral of the Story: 

I no longer believe in the supernatural or in Mormonism, but the lessons of the Baseball Baptism Era apply to many areas of life: in a large organization, there is a limit to how strong incentives providing extrinsic motivation can be without causing widespread cheating (in the sense of low-quality production that seems to answer the quantitative goals but does not truly meet the underlying goals very well). For economists and businesspeople who are trained to believe in incentives, this is a sad message, but an important one.

Formal competitions sometimes keep cheating down by extremely intensive monitoring. But monitoring as intensive as, say the referees on the field in a sports arena, along with all the watching fans scrutinizing things, can be expensive and not always easy to adapt to routine production.

The rewards for publishing journal articles are large enough to cause a certain amount of cheating even though the quality of articles can be monitored relatively thoroughly. Sometimes the cheating is in claiming data that doesn’t exist. Sometimes it is in mischaracterizing the statistical results–especially not mentioning all the failed experiments. Sometimes it is in saying something that sounds good but is misleading. Given all the many ways to cheat a little or a lot in the academic arena, we should be careful about judging our fellow academics on grounds that are too narrowly quantitative. A judgement about someone’s academic integrity and whether they are really trying to advance knowledge and make the world a better place should always be formed along with the counting of the beans (an apt metaphor for the counting of journal articles someone has published). It is possible for a bad person to have a brilliant scientific insight that one should take very seriously and build on. But a bad person who has done some good science needs to be watched very closely in case they slip in bad science along with the good.

On the other hand, someone who, with integrity is working hard to do the best that she or he can to advance knowledge and make the world a better place by applying knowledge should feel good about that even if her or his number of beans doesn’t add up to the same magnificent-looking pile as some others. Although occasionally, something wrong is like sand in an oyster and causes many other researchers to generate pearls of wisdom in reaction, in general, it is much better to have a short Curriculum Vitae with one scientific result that is right than a long Curriculum Vitae with one scientific result that is right and ninety-nine other misleading bits of supposed science.