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

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.

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.

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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.

So, the next experiment we wanted to find out what even smaller differences could make. So we gave people a sheet of paper with a lot of letters on it and we said, “Look for two letters next to each other that are the same,” it was a random set and we did the same thing. We paid them more for the first sheet, less for the next sheet, and so on.

And we had three conditions. In the first condition, every time you gave me a sheet, if I was the experimenter, I would ask you to write your name on the top, I would look at it like this. I would say “Aha!” and I would put it on the pile.

In the next condition you didn’t have to write your name. I would just take the sheet of paper and, without looking at it, I would just put it on the big pile of paper; no acknowledgement, just putting it down.

In the third condition, if you gave me a sheet of paper, I immediately took it and shredded it.

And now the question is how much would people work in those three conditions. And what I’m going to show you here is what is the minimum amount of money that people are willing to work for, right? How long did it go, so low amounts of money mean that people enjoy it. So we got the replication on the first result.

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In the acknowledged condition when you say, “Aha!” people were willing to work up to $0.15 per page, really low wages. In the shredded condition they wanted twice as much money and the question is, what happens in the ignored condition? Is the ignored condition like the shredded? Is it like the acknowledged? Is it somewhere in the middle? It turns out it was very similar to the shredded condition.

So if you really want to demotivate people, shredding their work is really good for that. But it turns out that simply ignoring them gets you a big part of the way, in fact, almost —

So this was one part of motivation, it’s about feeling meaning for what you are doing and acknowledged and so on, and we mostly did this by destroying people’s motivation.

Let’s think for a second about the other part, that is how we can get people to be more motivated. How we can get people to do more and, the idea here came to me after going to IKEA, so I don’t know about you, but I like IKEA but every time I get this furniture, I find myself that it takes me much longer than I expected to build this and the instructions seem confusing. I often do a step and then have to backtrack and when I have to guess something I think I guess wrong more than 50% of the time. Lots of these things, and the thought is: Is it that a result of this? Do I love my furniture more?

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