It’s not a question I normally ask myself, but it occurred to Dan Ariely. In “Predictably Irrational” he writes:
“[...] salary alone will not motivate people to risk their lives. Police officers, firefighters, soldiers – they don’t die for their weekly pay. It’s the social norms – pride in their profession and a sense of duty – that will motivate them to give up their lives and health. A friend of mine in Miami once accompanied a U.S customs agent on a patrol of the offshore waters. The agent carried an assault rifle and could certainly have pounded several holes into a fleeing drug boat. But had he ever done so? No way, he replied. He wasn’t about to get himself killed for the government salary he received. In fact, he confided, his group had an unspoken agreement with the drug couriers: the feds wouldn’t fire if the drug dealers didn’t fire. Perhaps that’s why we rarely (if ever) hear about gun battles on the edges of America’s “war on drugs.””

If you were me (and I know this for a fact, because I am me) you would flash back to Randall Collins on violence, or Robert Axelrod on the emergence of non-violent cooperation between opposing trenches in WW1. Perhaps you think of Radley Balko’s work on no-knock paramilitary-style police raids at night which can result in the deaths of both residents and officers, though you recall also that policing isn’t that dangerous a profession (with most of the risk coming from operating a vehicle). If you were similar to but still not me, you might have even recalled Fred McChesney on the diminishing danger faced by firefighters. All in all, if you were me, you would be glad that there aren’t so many gun battles and that people get to live long lives. But Dan Ariely is not me.

His response is “How can we change this situation?” He first considers paying them enough that they consider it worth risking their lives, but then decides that it would be better if they knew society held them in great esteem for taking such risks. He then extrapolates that to suggesting that we improve our childrens’ education not through standardized-testing or performance-based salaries but by rethinking school curricula to “link them in more obvious ways to social goals (elimination of poverty and crime, elevation of human rights, etc.), technological goals (boosting energy conservation, space exploration, nanotechnology, et.c) and medical goals (cures for cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.) that we care about as a society”. He argues that when children see the point of education they will become more enthusiastic and motivated. I haven’t done any more research than him on the subject, but that kind of idea brought to my mind the bee-sting theory and Promises I Can Keep. More cynically, it occurs to me that these are already areas society holds up as very valuable, and by suggesting that we collectively signal the value we ascribe to them Ariely is doing the same thing as the psychologists described by Robyn Dawes.