Some people believe the proper phrase is ‘carrot on a stick,’ meaning an incentive, a carrot tied to a long stick and dangled in front of a balky donkey. Others believe it’s ‘carrot and stick,’ suggesting control of behavior by a combination of bribery and threat.
Documentary evidence is scarce. The phrase “carrot-persuaded donkey” was used in 1851, and in 1872, a politician was said to have “carrots dangled before his nose.” But there was no stick anywhere in sight.
The earliest ‘carrot on a stick’ comes from 1890, in a traveler’s tale of a journey through Russia. “As I rode along, there flashed into my mind a cartoon I had once seen of a donkey race, in which the victory had been won by an ingenious jockey who held a carrot on the end of a stick a foot or two in front of his ass’s nose.”
The ‘carrot and stick’ sense dates to an 1876 review of a book on John Stuart Mill, referring to the “carrot and stick discipline” to which his father subjected him. Winston Churchill used it in 1938: “Thus, by every device from the stick to the carrot, the emaciated Austrian donkey is made to pull the Nazi barrow up an ever-steepening hill.”
Different vegetables have been used. Lydia Maria Child, a Boston author, used the phrase ‘turnips on a stick’ in 1846, in a story intended to show that children respond better to kindness than to whipping.
But today, the carrot is meant to be the kind, enlightened alternative to punishment with a stick. Child’s story was not suggesting that children should be duped into behaving, merely treated humanely. The moral of both tales is that the carrot is more effective than the stick.
The modern use of ‘carrot and stick’ seems most prevalent in the psychology of getting employees to do what’s required of them. The related idiom, ‘carrot or stick,’ refers to the process of weighing and/or deciding whether a desired behavior would be better induced via the enticement of benefits or the threat of punishments.
Most people are taught to behave by being punished. This helps maintain discipline at home, school and even organizations. However, it has long been debated as to whether rewards or punishment work best.
Workers may grumble about low pay or an uncomfortable work environment, or stupid rules but even if managed brilliantly, fixing these factors won’t motivate people to work harder or smarter. It turns out that what motivates people are interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility.
Carrots are okay, but I’d be more motivated by a chocolate raspberry muffin.