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Transcript: Dan Pink Discusses The Puzzle of Motivation at TED Talk Conference

Dan Pink

Following is the full transcript of author Dan Pink’s talk: The Puzzle of Motivation at TED Talk Conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Dan Pink on The puzzle of motivation at TED Talk

TRANSCRIPT: 

I need to make a confession at the outset here.

A little over 20 years ago, I did something that I regret, something that I’m not particularly proud of. Something that, in many ways, I wish no one would ever know, but that here I feel kind of obliged to reveal.

In the late 1980s, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, I went to law school. Now, in America, law is a professional degree. You get your university degree, then you go on to law school. When I got to law school, I didn’t do very well. To put it mildly, I didn’t do very well. I, in fact, graduated in the part of my law school class that made the top 90% possible. Thank you. I never practiced law a day in my life; I pretty much wasn’t allowed to.

But today, against my better judgment, against the advice of my own wife, I want to try to dust off some of those legal skills — what’s left of those legal skills. I don’t want to tell you a story. I want to make a case. I want to make a hard-headed, evidence-based, dare I say lawyerly case, for rethinking how we run our businesses.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, take a look at this. This is called the candle problem. Some of you might have seen this before. It’s created in 1945 by a psychologist named Karl Duncker. Karl Duncker created this experiment that is used in a whole variety of experiments in behavioral science. And here’s how it works.

Suppose I’m the experimenter. I bring you into a room. I give you a candle, some thumbtacks and some matches. And I say to you, “Your job is to attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn’t drip onto the table.”

Now what would you do? Many people begin trying to thumbtack the candle to the wall. Doesn’t work. Somebody – some people and I saw somebody kind of make the motion over here — some people have a great idea where they light the match, melt the side of the candle, try to adhere it to the wall. It’s an awesome idea. Doesn’t work.

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And eventually, after five or ten minutes, most people figure out the solution, which you can see here. The key is to overcome what’s called functional fixedness. You look at that box and you see it only as a receptacle for the tacks. But it can also have this other function, as a platform for the candle. The candle problem.

Now I want to tell you about an experiment using the candle problem, done by a scientist named Sam Glucksberg, who is now at Princeton University in the US. This shows the power of incentives. Here is what he did. He gathered his participants and he said: “I’m going to time you, how quickly you can solve this problem.”

To one group he said, “I’m going to time you to establish norms, averages for how long it typically takes someone to solve this sort of problem.”

To the second group he offered rewards. He said, “If you’re in the top 25% of the fastest times, you get $5. If you’re the fastest of everyone we’re testing here today, you get $20.” Now this is several years ago, adjusted for inflation, it’s a decent sum of money for a few minutes of work. OK, it’s a nice motivator.

Question: How much faster did this group solve the problem? Answer: It took them, on average, three and a half minutes longer. 3.5 min longer. Now this makes no sense, right? I mean, I’m an American. I believe in free markets. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, right?

If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show. Incentivize them. That’s how business works. But that’s not happening here. You’ve got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.

And what’s interesting about this experiment is that it’s not an aberration. This has been replicated over and over again for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators — if you do this, then you get that — work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don’t work or, often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored.

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I spent the last couple of years looking at the science of human motivation, particularly the dynamics of extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators. And I’m telling you, it’s not even close. If you look at the science, there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

And what’s alarming here is that our business operating system — think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources — it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks. That’s actually fine for many kinds of 20th century tasks.

But for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn’t work, often doesn’t work, and often does harm. Let me show you what I mean.

So Glucksberg did another similar experiment similar to this where he presented the problem in a slightly different way, like this up here. Attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn’t drip onto the table. Same deal.

You: we’re timing for norms.

You: we’re incentivizing.

What happened this time? This time, the incentivized group kicked the other group’s butt. Why? Because when the tacks are out of the box, it’s pretty easy isn’t it? If-then rewards work really well for those sorts of tasks, where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to.

Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind; that’s why they work in so many cases. So, for tasks like this, a narrow focus, where you just see the goal right there, zoom straight ahead to it, they work really well.

But for the real candle problem, you don’t want to be looking like this. The solution is on over here. The solution is on the periphery. You want to be looking around. That reward actually narrows our focus and restricts our possibility. Let me tell you why this is so important.

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