Predictably Irrational: Basic Human Motivations by Dan Ariely (Transcript)

Predictably Irrational: Basic Human Motivations by Dan Ariely at TEDxMidwest – Transcript

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Dan Ariely – Behavioral economist

Okay. So I want to talk today a little about human motivation. What gets us to care and act, and be active.

And as a starting point, especially being in Chicago, close to the University of Chicago, in the Economics Department of Chicago, I think it’s worthwhile to think that our basic idea about human motivation is that we think about people like rats. People don’t like to work. If we were left to our own accord what we would be doing, we would be on a beach somewhere sipping mojitos. And the only reason we work is because we need to get money, so that we can eventually sit on the beach drinking mojitos.

But the basic motivation is to enjoy leisure and not work and everything else is just a distraction in order so we can do that. And it’s a fine model, but we should ask ourselves, is this a correct depiction of human motivation, is this really what gets us to act and to do things.

And one challenge you can think about is mountain climbing. If you look at people who have climbed different mountains and their depictions, and histories and stories you would think this is the most miserable thing in the world. People are cold, and have frostbite. It’s hard to breathe, it’s difficult. I climbed a little peak in the Himalayas many years ago and you would think that you would get to the top, and you would sit there and enjoy the view.

No! It’s cold, it’s miserable, you’re tired. Just go down as fast as possible from that point on. And if you think about this behavior and you say to yourself, here is something that every moment seems like agony, it just seems like a punishment and people go down, and all they want to do is go up again. They want to recover first, but then they want to go up again.

How does this view fit with our notion of people sitting on the beach drinking mojitos? It looks like people are either suckers for punishment. Right? We want to punish ourselves. Or, that what really motivates us is not relaxation, it’s not comfort, it’s other things. It’s about achievement, it’s about conquering, it’s about pursuing some goal, it’s about arriving at some peak.

I actually became interested in this topic when one of my ex-students came to talk to me. His name was David, he left university a few years earlier and he became a consultant, or some banker on Wall Street. And he worked for a big bank and he told me that for a few weeks he worked on a big presentation for a merger that was going to happen. He worked evenings, he worked overtime to create this beautiful presentation with statistics and graph and description. He was really proud of his work, and he really enjoyed it.

And then he sent it to his boss, and his boss said, “David, great job, the merger is cancelled.” And he was just devastated.

And the interesting thing about this is that he said that from a functional perspective everything was great. Here he was, he did a good job, he enjoyed it while he was doing it, his boss appreciated it, and he was certain that he would get a raise when the time came but at the same time he couldn’t care now. And he was working on some other document at that point, and just couldn’t care to the same degree.

Now the question is, what happened to him? What is it? Everything functional was Okay, but something was missing. So to look at this I decided to do a couple of little experiments. And the experiments we started with were about building Bionicles.

So, Bionicles are little Lego robots, with about forty pieces, and you’re going to build them. And we got people to come to the Student Center and we said, “Hey, why don’t you build Legos for money?” You want to build the first one? You can get three dollars for it. After they finished the first one, we said, “Do you want to build another one?”

“This one you can get $2.74. When you’ve finished this one, do you want another one, for $2.40?” $2.10, $1.80 and so on in diminishing pay rate. And people basically had to decide when they want to stop. At what time, the money they were getting from building Legos was not worth their time.

And we did this in one of two conditions. The first one was just the way I described to you now. People build one Lego after another, after another, after another and when they finished building all these Legos, when they finished building each of them, we took them, we put them under the desk and we told them that when they finished the whole experiment we would take them, we would break them back, and we would put them back in the boxes for the next participant in the experiment. This is what we call the meaningful condition. Not a really big meaning, we are academics, but little meaning.

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