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.

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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.

The second experiment, we called the Sisyphic condition. And in this experiment people started building one Lego and when they finished it we took it back from them and said: “Do you want to build another one?” And if they wanted to build another one we handed them back the second one, but as they were working on the second one, we were taking apart the first one in front of their eyes. And then if they wanted to build a third one, we would give them that one back. So it was a complete recycling. And we called this the Sisyphic condition, after Sisyphus, who pushed the rock over the same hill over and over. And we can ask ourselves how much of the demotivating aspects of Sisyphus come from the fact that he pushed the same rock on the same hill versus if it was a different hill every time.

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So building something, having it destroyed in front of your eyes and building it again seems kind of an essential element for being unmotivated and here is what we got. In a meaningful condition people build about eleven robots and in the Sisyphus condition they build seven.

We also asked other people who didn’t participate in the experiment to predict what would people do. How much more would people build in a meaningful condition than in a Sisyphic condition. And people predicted correctly but they dramatically underestimated the effect. People thought that the difference would be about one robot but the difference was much, much larger.

So we all understand that meaning is important, we just dramatically underestimate how important this is. And I will tell you that I recently went to give a talk at a big software company. And this was a software company where a group of people worked for two years designing a particular product, and they thought this was the best product for this company. And after two years of working on it, the week before I came, the CEO of that company cancelled the project, and I’ve never seen a group of more demotivated people in my life.

And they all told me they felt like they were part of this Lego experiment. They worked for a long time and something was just destroyed in front of them. And I think basically their boss had the same mistake as our prediction experiment where he understood that meaning is probably a little bit important, but just didn’t understand how big it is. And now he had a group of people who were completely demotivated, and so on.

Now, there was another interesting part of this experiment, which is if you look at the correlation between how much people love Legos naturally and how much they persisted, you would expect that people who love Lego would build a lot and people who don’t love Lego would build a little; there would be some individual difference. And indeed there was individual differences.

In a meaningful condition people who loved Legos built more and people who didn’t love them didn’t build as many. In the Sisyphic condition the correlation was zero, which tells me that we basically choked every inch of enjoyment people had naturally from Legos. People come with a natural appreciation for Legos, some people, and we were basically able to crush that.