Masters of incentives: Worm Charmers




[Photo from Ken Catania]

“Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.” - Charlie Munger

It's simple in concept but people with massive IQs usually overlook it: incentives are hugely powerful.

You do not have to be a genius to identify and harness the power of incentives. Here is a perfect example of those who have identified how the world really works and aligned with those realities.

In Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest, Gary Revell, his wife and a few friends, have been waking up early every morning since the 1970s and hunt to make a living. Their focus? Earthworms.

These worm hunters reap $25 a bucket, which equates to 100s of worms. If you have ever tried to find worms to go fishing, you would know that finding a worm in the wild is pretty difficult. It is much easier to find a shop that sells “bait” and buy a carton of worms. Gary, and other worm hunters or worm “charmers”, are smarter than that. Generations of worm hunters have passed down a trick, observed from nature, that has worms practically jumping in their buckets. It’s like magic.

The method Gary uses is called “grunting”. A simple wooden stub (or “stob”) is inserted into the ground, and the hunters rub a flat iron across the top. The ensuing vibrations echo through the ground and magically earthworms appear. But it’s not magic, Gary is simply giving the worms an incentive to come out.

In 1881, Charles Darwin wrote about Earthworms; he was fascinated with them. Darwin noted that when a pot of earthworms was placed on the top of a loudly playing piano, earthworms would surface and try to escape. Conversely, the worms were quiet and docile when the pot was placed away from the playing piano. Darwin concluded that earthworms are extremely sensitive to vibrations.

Early worm hunters likely learned their trick from observing other animals. According to Wikipedia many animals who prey on earthworms use a similar method to attract worms:

Worm charming is a behavior also observed in the animal kingdom, especially among birds. The methods used vary; however, tapping earth with feet to generate vibrations is widespread. One common example is the "Seagull dance". The wood turtle also seems to be adapted for worm charming, as it is known to stamp its feet – a behavior that attracts worms to the surface and allows the turtle to prey on them.

But why do worms come out when they feel vibrations? Ken Catania, a researcher from Vanderbilt University, wanted to understand. He observed that constant rain generally brings earthworms to the surface, however, it generally takes a whole day. Worm hunters get an immediate response, so that theory was thrown out.

Catania’s theory is that earthworms are naturally fearful of vibrations due to moles. When moles dig underground, they make vibrations. The worms naturally want to avoid the mole predators, so earthworms misconstrue any vibration as a potential threat. The worm hunters essentially sound like monster moles.

While worm hunting is a dying art as a profession, it is a great reminder of the power of incentives. Human organizations, especially businesses, can unlock great results with the correct incentives. You don’t have to be a genius to see them. Get the incentives right, and you’ll look like you are performing magic.

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