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A short reflection on ‘culture incentives’

Emily Zhu | 10/16/2022

Since the dawn of homo sapiens, technology has been embedded in people’s lives.

An archery bow is a symbol for strength, a posture of possibility, the idea that we can stand tall, arms bent, looking right at it, we can make a difference. Jazz became popular because an opera-living engineer developed radio, which opened the door for an ignored art form to spread. More subtly, real estate developers lobbied for suburban train lines to build their stations where they owned a lot of land. A station, particularly an express stop, would lead more residents, then more businesses, then more investment in schools, then a bigger station, an entire ecosystem based on one precondition – advancement of technology. Technology shapes different cultures and differentiates one from another.

Incentive goes both ways. It’s easy to underestimate how much good people can do, how talented they can become, while what they can accomplish in an environment where they haven’t found the proper positive incentives. Thus, you can have good, honest, well-intended people who end up supporting or partaking in bad behavior because the incentives to play along are so strong. Incentives can be cultural and tribal, where people are reluctant to support ideas they don’t believe in, or afraid they will be banished from their social group. For those who have watched the ‘Douche and Turd’ episode of South Park, Stan was exiled from South Park after refusing to vote, one of the targets of today’s cancel culture – vote or die.

Plenty of marketing and social-change groups focus on educating people and getting them to make ‘different and better’ decisions. In China, the typical household saves three to five times as much of their income as a household in the US. This is not an active decision, it’s a culture component. It almost always boils down to ‘that’s what people like me do’. Powerful organizations and great brands got there by aligning with and accelerating tectonic cultural shifts enabled by technological innovations, not by tweaking sales one at a time.

There are two lessons here. The first is that the easiest thing to do is merely amplify what a culture is already embracing. The second is that real change is culture change, and you must go about it with the intent to change the culture, not to merely make the easy sale.


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