Irwin: Incentives, rewards and expectations

Over 50 years ago, a Stanford psychologist designed and conducted the “Marshmallow Experiment” study on delayed gratification. In it, children were offered an immediate reward (the aforementioned marshmallow) or a larger reward (more marshmallows) if they were willing to wait. Follow-up studies found that those children who could delay gratification had better life outcomes as measured by SAT scores, educational achievement, and body mass index. In other words, they seemed smarter, healthier, and more successful. This study has been repeated, reworked, and cited many times over the years. Other factors — wealth, living environment, etc. — it turns out, have an impact on the predictive power of the experiment.

Regardless of the significance of the outcome, however, this story always makes me think of incentives and how we determine them. Is the promise of more treats worth a short-term delay in gratification? Why a marshmallow?


Lately I have been involved in several conversations about vaccines. Is the promise of no disease worth the slight inconvenience and handful of symptoms that come with the vaccine? If not, what is an appropriate incentive? #HIGotVaccinated offered the chance to win Hawaiian Airlines miles, Zippy’s meals, and various sundry discounts. Other states offered Girl Scout Cookies, college tuition, lottery tickets, cash, and a variety of other “prizes.” Somehow the notion that we are keeping ourselves and our loved ones safer is not seen as enough of an incentive. It is a delayed gratification rather than an immediate reward. How much and what kind of incentive is enough?

The answer, of course, depends on the individual. We all find our gratification in different ways. What would be a perfectly good motivation for me may have no effect on someone else, and yet, we seem to expect that others will be driven by the same desires as we are, and we build our expectations around that.

How can I ensure that most of the UH-Hilo ‘ohana gets a vaccine? I can provide time off; I can model the behavior I want to see in others; I can demand or require; I can coax and cajole. I can offer incentives, and yet some people will not respond. Others want reassurance that they will be safe because despite their own vaccine, they might still be somewhat vulnerable.

This range of responses and expectations plays a big role in preparing for the fall semester. One group wants the freedom to choose; another group does not want to be exposed to those who may make a choice different from their own. So we continue to talk about masks, sanitizers and distancing in order to keep our community safe while at the same time we appeal to people’s empathy and care for others and we think about incentives. The good news is that employees and student surveys show that most folks have either been vaccinated or want to be, which makes me cautiously optimistic.

The stakes, as always, are high, which is why students and employees alike are asking what we plan to do to protect them, and we have a kuleana to provide a high-quality education in order to keep building a healthy future for our island and our state. We find, however, that sometimes we have to provide additional motivation to students. They want an education and the better life that it promises, but the work is sometimes hard. So extra incentives along the way, such as tangible rewards for completing a certain number of hours or participating in a professional development activity, adds to the chances that a student will complete their requirements, finish their assignments, and get the delayed gratification that the degree brings.


We are in the midst of figuring out what kind of marshmallows we need and how many so that we continue to fulfill our mission of educating students and contributing to the economic future of the state. In order to continue doing that work, and do it well, we need to get as many people as possible vaccinated. The rewards will be access to in-person classes and activities again, the promise of education, and good health for our community. Those are some awfully big marshmallows!

Bonnie D. Irwin is chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

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