Intrinsic Motivation and Free Software

by on May 11, 2008 · 9 comments

Luis points to an interesting paper on the fragility of intrinsic motivation in volunteer efforts. Luis explains:

The paper also has some more detailed observations that come out of the experimental work; among them that voluntary cooperation is fragile; group composition matters (i.e., groups with more conditional cooperators will be healthier); and that ‘belief management’ maters- i.e., if people think that they are in a group with more conditional cooperators, that group will be more robust. None of these will come as a huge surprise to anyone who has been involved with volunteer communities, but still interesting to see it experimentally confirmed.

I’ve always suspected that something like this is the case, and that it explains in part why the GPL is so successful, since it uses copyright to force cooperation and penalize defection, and (importantly) makes a clear public statement that that is the case, which serves a signaling function (everyone in the community knows these are the ground rules) and a filtering function (people who aren’t interested in collaborating don’t join as much as they join other groups.)

I think this is the key explanation for the outrage over the MS-Novell deal a couple of years back. By signing on to the GPL, Novell had signaled that it intended to honor the free software community’s principle of reciprocity. Then, it signed an agreement with Microsoft that looked like an attempt to skirt the GPL in a way that gave Novell an unfair advantage over other members of the Linux ecosystem. People who weren’t steeped in the ethos of the free software community saw it as a simple business deal, and objections to it as some kind of knee-jerk reaction to profit-making. They didn’t realize the extent to which the community is made up of “conditional cooperators” whose participation is contingent on everyone else in the community following the rules. When Novell “defected” from the community’s expectations, the rest of the community felt a need to ostracize it to ensure that no one else would be tempted to similarly defect.

Luis also linked to this old post of his which has more interesting citations on intrinsic motivations.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2008/03/05/rumours-of-the-death-of-the-newspaper-have-been-greatly-exaggerated/ enigma_foundry

    The paper also has some more detailed observations that come out of the experimental work; among them that voluntary cooperation is fragile

    I’ll read the paper soon, but volunteer cooperation can’t be that fragile; just witness the persistence of organized religion, which has been around for quite a while.

    The principle of reciprocity is almost always embodied in religious belief system, e.g., “do unto others…”

    Signaling and filtering, of course, also come up in discussions re: evolutionary psychology.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis

    Organized religion isn’t volunteer-based, it is based on the work of people who think they need to do things, or else their deity will punish them for it. If I could convince people that their deity will hate them unless they contributed to my software project, I’d be rolling in ‘volunteers’.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    The paper also has some more detailed observations that come out of the experimental work; among them that voluntary cooperation is fragile

    I’ll read the paper soon, but volunteer cooperation can’t be that fragile; just witness the persistence of organized religion, which has been around for quite a while.

    The principle of reciprocity is almost always embodied in religious belief system, e.g., “do unto others…”

    Signaling and filtering, of course, also come up in discussions re: evolutionary psychology.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis

    Organized religion isn’t volunteer-based, it is based on the work of people who think they need to do things, or else their deity will punish them for it. If I could convince people that their deity will hate them unless they contributed to my software project, I’d be rolling in ‘volunteers’.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com enigma_foundry

    Organized religion isn’t volunteer-based, it is based on the work of people who think they need to do things, or else their deity will punish them for it.

    Silly. Nearly all Christian denominations teach that belief (faith) alone is enough for slvation. The rest (monastaries, universities, Cathedrals) were all built by volunteers. Buddhism, too does not teach that good works are required, but they a voluntary.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Organized religion isn’t volunteer-based, it is based on the work of people who think they need to do things, or else their deity will punish them for it.

    Silly. Nearly all Christian denominations teach that belief (faith) alone is enough for slvation. The rest (monastaries, universities, Cathedrals) were all built by volunteers. Buddhism, too does not teach that good works are required, but they a voluntary.

  • Pingback: devenir rentier

  • Pingback: twitter.com/NHCPS

  • Pingback: how to

Previous post:

Next post: