An Analysis of Sam Harris's Article The Power of Bad Incentives

Categories: Psychology

A young boy walks into the kitchen, and he spots the cookie jar. He looks left and then right thinking he won’t get caught, but as he reaches in the jar his mother walks in punishing him. This is a classic, albeit cliché, situation accurately presents bad incentives. Sam Harris covers the topic of bad incentives in his essay “the power of bad incentives.” The essay was a response to’s annual essay question asking, “what should we worry about?” Harris has written or contributed to essays and books including the New York Times best seller “The End of Faith” and won the 2005 PEN award for nonfiction.

He also has been published in 15 languages, and is the CEO and cofounder of Project Reason (About Sam Harris). Harris’ essay describes different situations where people make bad decisions such as prison gangs that they think will benefit themselves, but in the end hurt themselves. Harris targets young to middle-aged adults of both sexes with his essay.

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He seems to be empowering them to make better choices as to help people as a whole. Harris claims that bad incentives can be overcome through wiser systems, but the biggest challenge is to build them. This claim is supported through his use of relatable situations such as the prison example, but there are weak points such as America’s war on drugs.

Harris targets those who can relate to the different situations in his essay. The most likely target group of the essay is adults of both sexes ages ranging from 30-50, because in his essay Harris uses example that affect this particular group above all else.

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For example, when he discusses the lawyers and politicians in his essay [Sam131]. Harris uses these examples because they relate to this age group. Not only are most of the people in these professions in this group, but also those who listen to these groups such as voters are also in the same age group. Another example that points to this age group is that Harris tells his readers we need “systems that are wiser than we are” [Sam131]. This wording points to the fact Harris is telling his readers that we need to change, and this age group is the most likely that could create that change. Furthermore, by this same point Harris seems to not include the older generation 65 and up, because they cannot institute the change that he says is needed.

Another way Harris establishes a connection to his readers is through his use of logic throughout his essay. Harris structures his essay to have his strongest points first. He begins with the most extreme situation being the man sent to prison to present a kind of shock factor. He then continues by placing in more examples that are more relatable such as lawyers and politicians. Finally, Harris concludes the essay by challenging his readers to change the “cultural norms.” His use of logic or logos is established when he uses examples that most everyday people know. The situation of politicians playing the public short term for votes is an excellent example of this, because it is a clear, logical situation that is easily relatable to the average person. Another situation he uses is Harris plays on the widely believed fact that politicians are easily corruptible. Harris claims these bad incentives are the problem, and we need to change the systems (Harris). He supports this by using the government’s war on drugs. Harris says the war causes the problem it is means to solve. This is a good explanation of bad incentives. People make decisions they think will help themselves much like the government fights, drugs, but people ending up causing more problems than they actually solve.

Harris continues to support his claims through the use of emotional aspects in his essay or pathos. The way he engages his audience is through emotion can be seen in his evidence. For example, when he uses the example of the lawyer that could play on someone who may have had a family member wrongly convicted or a friend who was a murder victim whose killer was set free. Another example of this is when Harris discusses how insurance companies look for technicalities to “deny desperately ill patients the care they need” (Harris). This could affect emotions in someone who may have had someone close to them die, because of a lack of insurance funding. Furthermore, it could also play on the fears of people who are financially unstable where if they were to get sick, and did not receive funding it would bankrupt them. Finally, in the example of the CEOs and bankers can inflict emotion in some, because these professions risk money, and sometimes their companies with no personal risk. However, the workers for those companies have jobs, their very way of life dependent of these CEOs to keep the company afloat so they have a job. These examples could really inflict emotion, but examples like the government war on drugs is a weak argument. The argument is weak, because not that many people are widely affected by the drug war directly. Although, people are aware of America’s fight against drugs the average person has not been directly affected by it. Overall the audience may more than likely respond positively toward the essay, but there are some points where it is not as strong as it could be.

Harris claims bad incentives create negative outcomes and hurt society. However, he does not mention the counter argument that they can have a positive impact. For example, in Harris’ essay he mentions that elected officials tend to ignore long-term problems, but there are some politicians that actively engage the community to solve long-term problems. Furthermore, in the prison example Harris claims that if the young man wrongly convicted does not join a gang he would become a target. However, he could have avoided this and used the experience to build himself as a person. However, Harris does not seem to address these issues at all, and that seems to be the weakest aspect of his essay. The main counter argument is that bad incentives can create a positive circumstance. An example of bad incentives creating a positive outcome is the quarterback Tim Tebow. In an article written by Michael Butterworth, he discusses how Tebow is constantly critiqued over his Christianity and occasional poor play. Nevertheless, Tebow takes the criticism and instead of allowing it to hurt him he uses it as motivation (Butterworth 18). Another example of positive situations out of bad incentives is LeBron James. In a world where athletes chase the most money LeBron James is a unique case. In 2010, LeBron James left the Cleveland Caviliers to “Take [his talents to south beach, and join the Miami Heat” (Goodman). However, James, who is widely regarded as the NBA’s best player, left money to join his friend Dwayne Wade. In a situation where most athletes chase the money LeBron James chose to join his friend in Miami. These athletes are just a couple examples of many that show that not all bad incentives create negative affects. Some can in fact create situations where the incentives allow those affected to grow as people.

Overall Harris has an effective article, but there are some weak points. The use of logos and pathos throughout the paper create a strong essay. Harris’ use of the lawyers and politicians helps readers relate with the essay. Also, the insurance example is significant as well, because it is another example that allows readers to relate the situation to their own lives. However, Harris has some examples the average person would not find significant. For example, the government’s war on drugs is not relevant, because it does not widely affect the average person. Also, another factor that hurts the paper is the lack of counterarguments. Harris does not seem to acknowledge any counter arguments such as the positive outcome of bad incentives. For example, Tebow’s experience throughout his career the criticisms that he receives particularly his religious views are sometimes attacked, and he uses this to motivate himself. The essay is well structured, and thought out. However, the lack of counterarguments, and some poor examples take away from the paper. The essay is persuasive at the beginning with regards to the relatable examples, but as the essay continues the lack of counterarguments, and poor examples hurt the general persuasiveness of the paper.

Works Cited

  1. “About Sam Harris”. 2013. Sam Harris. Project Reason, n.d. Web. 29 October 2013. Butterworth, ML. “The Passion Of The Tebow: Sports Media And Heroic Language In The Tragic Frame.” Critical Studies In Media Communication 30.1 (n.d.): 17-33. Social Sciences Citation Index. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
  2. Harris, Sam. “The Power of Bad Incentives.” 2013. Edge. Edge Foundation. 29 October 2013 <>
  3. Joseph Goodman, jgoodman@Miami “NBA’s best player (LeBron James) isn’t best paid; LeBron James sacrificed money for success when he joined the Miami Heat, but it begs the question: How much would he be worth if there was no salary cap?.” Miami Herald, The (FL) 17 Feb. 2013: NewsBank. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.
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An Analysis of Sam Harris's Article The Power of Bad Incentives. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved from

An Analysis of Sam Harris's Article The Power of Bad Incentives

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