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Motivation Escapes Us When We Don’t Understand Its Machinery

Dan Ariely | May 23, 2018

Dan Ariely

Professor of Behavioral Economics, Duke University

Dan Ariely: So when we think about what motivates people maybe the first thing we think about is what we think motivates people and what don’t we understand motivates people. And maybe the first misunderstanding is about the pleasure principle. So we have this idea of we have the right to pursue happiness and we’re trying to be happy and that’s really what we’re pursuing – happiness. But think about it. What gives you happiness in a way that is observable? Maybe sitting on the beach drinking a mojito or maybe sitting on the sofa watching a sitcom. But if you do almost anything that is useful, meaningful, that you take pride of it’s not the same things. But imagine you have a whole life of sitting on the beach drinking mojitos. How happy would that life be? So the first I think mistake is that we pursue momentary happiness rather than longer term happiness. So we do the things that will make us laugh out loud today kind of. Not always laugh out loud but kind of like that. And we don’t do the things that are difficult and complex and challenging but give us a very different sense of happiness. Think about something like running a marathon. You don’t see anybody happy. Like if you came as an alien and you image peoples’ brains and you looked at their facial expressions as they’re running a marathon you would say somebody’s punishing them.

Like they are paying for something terrible they’ve done and this is how they’re paying their debt to society. But it is kind of miserable but it’s also meaningful and create a sense of achievement in someone. So we’re pursuing momentary pleasure rather than truly understanding the depth of what happiness is or what meaning is. And then the second thing is that we’re trying to figure out how we externally motivate people and we have usually a very simple equation that says motivation equals money. And if you’re not working hard enough or doing something and they’re just not paying you enough or not giving you a bonus in the right way then we just jigger around bonuses and payment and we say oh, let’s change the payment this way and change the payment this way and give is slightly big bonuses here and slightly big bonuses there and we’ll create point systems for evaluation and all kind of things. The beauty of human nature is that lots of things motivate us. A sense of accomplishment and achievement, our title, our connection to work, our connection to people at work, competing with other people. All of those things motivate us. So we write a motivation equation we would write motivation equals yes, money is important but so is achievement, sense of progress, competition, dah, dah, dah, dah.
And the question is how do we use all of them to create motivation. And in physics people look for the perpetual motion machine. How do we get energy from nothing, right, and continue growing. In motivation there is something like that so imagine two businesses. In one of them the business doesn’t care about motivation. In one of them they care deeply. In the first business people are miserable and the business is miserable and they’re not making lots of money. In the second one people could be happier, management could be happier and they could be much more productive and efficient. Everybody wins when we invest in deep motivation.

One of the first experiments we did on the question of meaning. It wasn’t like big meaning, it was little meaning. And here is what we did. We got people to come to the lab and we say would you like to build a bionical and we’ll pay you three dollars for this bionical. And people built their bionical. We took it, we put it under the desk and we say would you like to build another one for two dollars and seventy cents? If the say yes we gave them the next one. And then the next one for thirty cents less and less and less diminishing wage until they decide stop, no more. And we told all of those people that when they finished the task we’ll take all the bionical, we’ll break them into pieces and prepare them for the next participant. That was what we call the meaningful condition. It’s not really meaningful but it is meaningful compared to the next condition. In the next condition which we internally called the sisyphic condition it started the same way. We said to people would you like to build a bionical for three dollars and they started doing it. When they finished we took it from them. We kept it on the desk and then we said would you like to build another one for two seventy. If they said yes they started building the second bionical but as they were building the second bionical we took the pieces apart from the first bionical.

So we destroyed it in front of their eyes. And then we put it back in the box and then we said would you like to build a third one for thirty cents less. And if they said yes we gave them back the first one that they assembled and we broke. And this way we continued back and forth. And we called this the sisyphic condition because if you remember Sisyphus from the mythology he was sentenced to push a rock up the hill and he almost got to the top and the rock would roll back and he had to do the same hill. And the idea was that if there were different hills, right, if you were just going over different hills maybe he would feel some progress. But having to do the same hill over and over was the depth of demoralizing of people. And what happened? Kind of a couple of interesting things. The first one is that people stopped much faster in the sisyphic condition. The second one is we asked people how much they enjoyed Legos in general. And we wanted to see whether there’s a correlation between how much they enjoyed Legos and how much they persisted in this task. And what we saw was that in the meaningful condition there was a correlation. People who loved Legos did more bionicals. People who didn’t like Legos internally didn’t like so much. In the sisyphic condition the correlation was zero which means that we kind of sucked away the joy of assembling Legos.

Because you see the people who love Legos did not do any more than the people who didn’t. Somehow the joy of it just went away. The other interesting insight from this study is we did another version of this experiment in which people did not engage in building bionicals but we did this in business school and we asked the students to predict how other people would behave in those two environments. So we said okay, you have an environment with more meaning and an environment with less meaning. How many bionicals will people build differently in those two environments? And we paid people for the accuracy of their predictions. What happened? People predicted that the difference will be in the meaningful condition people would build more. But they predicted it would be only one bionical more. So we understand that meaning matters but we think it matters very little. In fact, it matters a lot. People built almost four more bionicals. So there was a big gap and people don’t understand how meaning is important. And if you think about it as a manager actually as anybody, if you’re trying to motivate people. It could be a school teacher, it could be a parent, whatever it is if you’re trying to motivate people you have to understand how big is meaning. And if you think that meaning has a very small effect you would not invest much in it. Only if you understand how big and important it is you will invest in it.


Motivation is a mysterious mechanism that varies from person to person. Duke University professor and behavioral economist Dan Ariely says that there’s a dissonance between what we think motivates people and what actually does — the difference between short-term and long-term happiness.

The most commonly-assumed formula for motivation is that money = motivation, or that motivation = money. But, while luxury rewards are a powerful idea, they’re not necessarily what drive us. Ariely thinks our most common mistake in motivation is deferring instantly to money rather than considering the value of meaning and accomplishment.

People often seek out challenging and intense tasks — such as building furniture, running marathons, and creating music — even when they have no financial benefit. By limiting our perspective to assuming that motivation only boils down to money, we’re missing out on all of the things that motivate us that are accomplishment-related or are meaningful.

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Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely Dan Ariely is the James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He is the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight and co-founder of BEworks, which helps business leaders apply scientific thinking to their marketing and operational challenges. His books include "Predictably Irrational" and "The Upside of Irrationality," both of which became New York Times best-sellers. As well as "The Honest Truth about Dishonesty" and his latest, "Irrationally Yours." Ariely publishes widely in the leading scholarly journals in economics, psychology, and business. His work has been featured in a variety of media including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Business 2.0, Scientific American, Science and CNN.