yours, tiramisu

goodhart's law, or the unintended consequences of your goals

With the new year approaching, I've been thinking about Goodhart's law more. Succinctly stated,

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measurement.

In Algorithms to Live By, Christian & Griffiths write that "it's incredibly difficult to come up with incentives or measurements that do not have some kind of perverse effect." There are examples of this challenge everywhere we look, but my favorite is a classic: the "cobra effect".

In India, the government offered money in exchange for each dead cobra turned in, to reduce the abundance of the dangerous wild cobras. At first, the policy seemed to be successful: many people came forward to claim the reward.
But after some time, the government discovered that people were breeding cobras and killing them for the bounty. After the government became aware of this strategy, they decided to scrap the cobra bounty program, and the breeders released their cobras into the wild. As a result, cobra populations boomed; the government policy turned out to be a spectacular failure! What does this teach us? When an optimization measure is set, people can manipulate it to meet the target. (emphasis mine)


I see applications of incentive theory everywhere, maybe nowhere more so than at work. Every calendar year my company has to hit a certain number of certifications in order to qualify for certain distinctions and the large monetary benefits that come with it. Naturally, the training team will beg for volunteers to take these exams, which rarely results in any takers. There's no good reason to subject yourself to the ordeal; not only do you not get any reward for passing, but studying for the exams also takes away from your time to work on other tasks.

Since the end of the year loomed large and we still had a long way to go to hit our targets, our company decided to offer up small cash incentives for people who passed exams. And what do you know—within two weeks we hit the certification numbers that had sat unfilled for almost an entire year. It amazes me that people can't see these results and implement a permanent incentive, especially because it would save everyone money and time. But I digress.

Anyway, one of the ways I've seen unintended consequences of setting goals in my own life is the Goodreads reading challenge. I want to start by saying that I love the reading challenge. I'm competitive to a fault, so setting an ambitious goal pushes me to read more in order to reach it. Goodreads also makes your goals visible to your friends (and vice versa), which makes hitting your target even more fun.

But this year I've seen that using books read as a goal metric leads to some consequences. For starters, I shy away from reading more challenging books, like Infinite Jest or War and Peace. These books take a long time to read, and finishing one can take me many months of persistent study, derailing my progress towards my goal to read x books a year. Thus, I find myself opting for shorter, easier reads. This fixation on quantity led me to fail spectacularly at my goal to read a book in Spanish each month. I didn't even reach my goal this year, but I feel just striving for it made me miss out on more challenging texts.

Now that we're only days before the new year, I want to continue to push myself to read more but without avoiding difficult books that will help me grow. In doing so I'm pondering a more modest total books goal in conjunction with a requirement that the first book read each month be written in a language other than English.

How do you avoid the unintended consequences of Goodhart's law in your own life? Let me know—I'd love to hear ways to do better.

#books #english