Ian Ayres has coined the term “anti-incentives” to describe incentives that “can help you learn how much you really care about something.” The classic example of an anti-incentive is the offer e-retailer Zappos makes to its employees: A week into an intensive training program, the company offers $1,000 to employees to quit. With such a generous offer, employees usually think about their own commitment to their potential Zappos job – certainly worth much more then $1,000 – and turn down the money.
Food bad boy Anthony Bourdain faced an upside down version of the Zappos anti-incentive early in his career. He showed up in the culinary office of an old acquaintance named “Bigfoot” looking for work in the kitchen. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain writes:
I was rail-thin, shaky, and the first thing I did was ask my old pal Bigfoot if he could lend me twenty-five bucks until payday. Without hesitation, he reached into his pocket and let me two hundred…Looking at me, and hearing the edited-for-television version of what I’d be up to in recent years, he must have had every reason to believe I’d disappear with the two bills, spend it on crack and never show up for my first shift. And if he’d given me the twenty-five instead of two hundred, that might well have happened…
I was so shaken by his baseless trust in me-that such a cynical bastard as Bigfoot would make such a gesture-that I determined I’d sooner gnaw my own fingers off, gouge my eyes out with a shellfish fork and run naked down Seventh Avenue than ever betray that trust.
Addendum: Zappos pays $3,000 these days.