The Puzzle of Motivation

As I suspected, Sunday’s post on Incentives & Employment elicited some strong responses. So to be fair, I thought it would be useful to spend a few more minutes on what motivates us.  A good friend forwarded me this clip from RSA Animate yesterday.  Thanks Bo!  I am now a full-fledged subscriber and highly recommend taking a few minutes out of your day to give it a look.  Very well done.

The authors suggest that bonuses work as expected – the higher the pay, the better the performance – as long as the task involves only “mechanical” skill.  But once you get above rudimentary cognitive skill, rewards don’t work that way.  In these instances, they found that higher incentives resulted in worse performance.

I need to go back and examine this research more closely, as a number of the author’s points are just not intuitive to me without further inspection.  I suspect that there are other factors at work here. For example, in a recent book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Harvard economist Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Shafir examined how the daily struggle for limited resources – time, money, food, etc. – greatly reduces mental bandwidth.

Scarcity creates “tunnel vision” which forces us to focus intensely on what we lack and imposes cognitive deficits in addressing other needs.  In some instances, mental performance for the poor and hungry was seen to be reduced by a factor as great as sleep deprivation.   This may very well explain why higher incentives resulted in worse performance for the poor in India, in RSA’s study.  In this instance, the “large carrot” may have forced the brain to focus on “the food” at the expense of mental bandwidth impairing cognitive skills. Try not to focus on “The Leprechan” after seeing this.

The Leprechaun

Leprechauns aside, there are several important points which I strongly agree with in this analysis, which is consistent with previous work done by behavioral economist Dan Ariely and Dan Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Below are a few of the authors’ conclusions:

  • Seeing the fruits of labor makes us more productive
  • The less appreciated we feel, the more money we want
  • The more difficult a project is, the prouder we feel of it
  • Knowing that our work helps others increases our motivation
  • The promise of helping others makes us more likely to follow rules
  • Positive reinforcement about our abilities may increase performance
  • Images that trigger positive emotions may actually help us focus (see Leprechaun)

In the event you are still inclined to continue thinking about the proverbial “carrot and stick” this Monday morning, the following talks from Ariely and Pink offer further perspective.  See, What makes us feel good about our work? and The puzzle of motivation available through TED.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, it’s back to work for me.  Happy St Patty’s Day!