Dan Ariely Discusses What Motivates People in Payoff

Think about your current job for a moment. Do you enjoy it? Do you find yourself excited to go to work each day, or is it something you dread? If it’s the latter, you’re not alone; according to a recent Gallup study, half of American workers feel disengaged at work, and 16 percent more actually hate their jobs. It should come as no surprise that this dissatisfaction has a detrimental effect on job performance, absenteeism, and employee turnover.

If so many people dislike their job, why not just quit? Money is part of the reason, but not as much as you might think. After all, American workers’ wages haven’t kept up with inflation for decades, but people still show up to work every day.

It’s solving the secret to motivation that Dan Ariely attempts to do in his book, Payoff. He discovers through his research that the reasons people work are vast and complex, but one particular factor stands out above the rest: Meaning.

Meaningful work helps people stay motivated.

People who feel their work is meaningful are more likely to enjoy their jobs, even if the work is sometimes grueling. Consider people with especially taxing or dangerous jobs, like nurses, firefighters, or therapists; there is obvious meaning in helping people, which eases the sting of the more miserable aspects of it.

But even the smallest amount of meaning in work can motivate people beyond what any external factor could do. Ariely tested this with an experiment. He divided people into two groups and had them build things with Legos for small sums of money. When people finished, he asked if they would build another for less money. The amount would gradually lower until the participant decided it wasn’t worth it for them to continue.

For the first group of people, Ariely took the completed Lego projects and set them aside until the participant decided to stop. For the second group, however, Ariely had the completed Lego projects disassembled immediately after their completion, then gave the same Lego pieces back to the participant to have them rebuild the object that had just been destroyed.

The second group gave up much sooner than the first group, because their work had no meaning to them. The monotony of being forced to rebuild projects they’d just watched get destroyed completely killed participants’ motivation to complete the task.

The first group, who got to see their finished creations through the whole experiment, felt satisfied enough to keep building, even if the amount of money they received was smaller.

Even more interestingly, while participants in the first group tended to build longer if they loved Legos more, the second group saw no such correlation. Even people who loved Legos felt no more motivated to keep building when they felt their work was meaningless.

How do I make my work more meaningful?

When boxed cake mixes first came out, you only had to add water to them to bake a cake. It was incredibly easy, and the cakes tasted great, but nobody was buying the mixes. After investigating why, manufacturers discovered that people didn’t want to use boxed mixes because they didn’t feel homemade enough. People felt it was no different baking a cake from a mix than buying one from a store.

So, they removed the milk and eggs from the powdered mix. Suddenly, boxes began flying off the shelves. Even though the amount of extra work is negligible, the time required to break eggs, pour milk, and stir, suddenly made the experience more personal and meaningful, because it required more effort on the part of the baker.

Ariely calls this The Ikea Effect. The amount of effort that goes into a project has a direct influence on how the worker feels about it when it’s complete. People who work harder on something (like assembling Ikea furniture) value their work significantly more than people who don’t, even if the final product is comparatively mediocre. We become attached to what we do when we spend a lot of time or effort on them. Sometimes, we do this to such a degree that we stubbornly refuse to abandon projects, even if we hate them! Our effort drives meaning, which drives motivation.

In our drive to create a more efficient workplace, we have alienated ourselves from our own work. Labor in America has evolved based on the idea that motivation comes from external factors like wages. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth; our connection to our work is what keeps us going back, even on days we’d rather not. If we want workers to re-engage with their jobs, we need to restore meaning to the work we give them.

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