Meaning in labour: Dan Ariely at TEDxAmsterdam

Meaning in labour: Dan Ariely at TEDxAmsterdam

Translator: Cátia Monteiro
Reviewer: Capa Girl So after the morning’s talks I thought,
you know: what can I do to improve? So, you know, Paul took off
his shirt, I can’t do that — But, you know, I thought:
maybe I’ll take off my — No. So I want to talk a little bit about
labor and motivation. And, when we think about
people as workforce, we often think about people
like rats in a maze. We think that people hate working,
we think that all that people want to do is to sit on the beach drinking mojitos
and the only reason that they work is that we pay them so they can
seat on the beach drinking mojitos. But is this the case? We have things like mountain climbing. Mountain climbing is a really challenging thing. When you read books
of people who climb mountains you would think that those books would be filled
with moments of elation and joy — No! They’re filled with moments
of misery and pain, frostbites — So you would think that once people get up
with these experiences and come down they will say, “My goodness, this was
a terrible mistake, I’ll never do it again!” No! They go straight up! They get to heal,
they get to recover and they go straight up! And this, I think, proposes a real challenge
for what do we think about joy, and what do we think about motivation,
and what actually gets people to care. I started thinking about
meaning and motivation in the workplace when one of my ex-students
came back to see me. His name was David – still is David –
he came to see me, and he told me the following story: He said that he was working
at an investment bank, preparing a PowerPoint presentation
for a merger and acquisition. He was working on it for weeks.
He was working hard, staying up late at night —
And the day before the merger and acquisition
was going to take place he mailed his PowerPoint presentation to his boss and his boss wrote him quickly back saying,
“Nice job! The deal is cancelled.” Now, throughout the process
he was incredibly excited! He was working, he was thinking happy,
his boss appreciated it. But the fact that nobody was going
to see it deflated him. In fact, when he was looking
at his next projects, he couldn’t really find
that much motivation. And if you think about it, it’s interesting
because physically, everything was OK. His boss appreciated it, he would probably get a raise, everything was OK — But something was missing
that is more, kind of a more general meaning for what he was doing. So I thought, you know: how can we capture it
with some simple experiments? So I decided to build Legos. So we paid people to build Lego Bionicles,
like the ones that you see. And we paid people in diminishing rate. So here’s what happened:
you came in and we say, “Would you like to build one Bionicle?” “We’ll pay you 3 dollars for it.” And if you said “yes” you would build it
and when you finished, we took it back and we say, “Would you like to build
another one? For 2.70?” And if you finished that and wanted
another one? For 2.40 and so on — And the question was,
“At what point will people stop?” And we told people that we take the Bionicles,
we’ll put them under the desk, and we’ll break them into pieces
for the next participant. (Laughter) This was the first condition. People build one after the other,
after the other, after the other. The second condition
we called the ‘Sisyphic Condition.’ If you remember the story of Sisyphus —
Sisyphus basically was sentenced by the gods to push a rock up a big mountain
and the almost moment he got there — The rock would roll back
and he would have to do it again. And you could think about
how demotivating this is, right? And how better it would be if at least it were
different mountains he would push the rock over. But being the same mountain
over and over and over is demotivating. So that’s what we tried to do
in the ‘Sisyphic Condition.’ We gave people a Bionicle, when they finished it, we said,
“Would you like to build another one?” If they said “yes”,
we gave them the second one, but as they were working on the second one
we took the first one to pieces. In front of their eyes. And then, if they wanted to build a third one,
we gave the first one back to them. (Laughter) So we had an endless cycle of breaking
and creating, creating and breaking. What happened?
The first thing that happened, was that people built many more Bionicles in the ‘Meaningful Condition’
compared to the ‘Sisyphic Condition.’ And what I should point out here is that
the meaning in the ‘Meaningful Condition’ was not really high meaning.
This was a tiny meaning. Right? So the fact that just destroying it
in front of their eyes a few minutes earlier made a difference,
is quite important. The second thing is that
we asked another group of people to predict how big the effect will be. We said, “If you were in this experiment,
how many Bionicles do you think people would build here
and how many will they build here?” And people understood that
the ‘Meaningful Condition’ would create higher motivation, but they didn’t understand
the magnitude of that. So people thought that the difference was
one Bionicle. In fact it was much larger. And finally, we looked at the correlation
between how much people love Bionicles and how many Bionicles they created. You would expect that, naturally,
people who love Bionicles more would build more Bionicles,
even for less money. And that’s indeed what we saw. In the ‘Meaningful Condition’
there was a nice correlation. People who like Bionicles build more,
people who don’t like Bionicles as much don’t build as much. What happened in the ‘Sisyphic Condition’? In the ‘Sisyphic Condition’
there was no correlation. We were basically able, by destroying
people’s labor in front of their eyes, to crash the joy out of this process. (Laughter) After I finished this study, I went to talk
to a big software company in Seattle. (Laughter) And this was a big room
full of 200 engineers and these were engineers
that worked for 2 years about the project that they thought
would be the next development for this big software company. And a week before I came
the CEO cancelled the project. And I never sat in front of a group
of more depressed people — And I asked them,”How many of you
show up later for work these days?” They all raised their hands. I said, “How many of you leave earlier?” They all raised their hands. I said, “How many of you charge
extra things on your expense accounts?” Nobody raised their hands,
but they took me for dinner that night. (Laughter) They showed me what they could do,
with creativity — And they said they felt
just like in the Lego experiment. They basically felt that somebody cancelled
something in front of their eyes, under their feet, without letting them have
any meaning of what they were doing. Now, here’s the thing:
I think the CEO of that company did not understand the meaning of labor. He just said, “OK, we directed you
in this direction up to now, let me redirect you somewhere else,
and you will just go in the way I think.” This is not how people operate. And I asked these people, “What could the CEO
have done? Let’s say he had to cancel the project. What could he have done
to keep some of your motivation?” And they came up
with all kinds of ideas. They said, “What if he allowed them to do
a presentation in front of the whole company?” “What if he asked them to build
a few more prototypes, to try and think about what aspect of the technology that they
were developing could fit in other projects?” Now, the thing is that, any one of those aspects,
any one of those approaches would demand some effort, attention and time,
and if you don’t think people care about their meaning
you wouldn’t spend their time. But if you understand how important
meaning is, you might do that. In the next experiment,
we took this a step further. We asked people to find
some letters in a sheet of paper. And again they got more money
for the first sheet, then less for the second and less for the third, and so on. And for some people we had
what we called the ‘Meaningful Condition.’ We asked people to write their name on each sheet
and when they gave it to the experimenter, the experimenter looked at it from top to bottom,
said “aha” and put it on the side. In the second condition,
the experimenter didn’t look at it. There was no name, the experimenter just took it
from the participant and put it on the desk. In the third condition,
the experimenter simply took the sheet and directly put it
through a shredder. (Laughter) Now, I should point out
that in this third condition, when the page goes directly
into a shredder, nobody looks. You could cheat. Right? You could be dishonest and do more sheets
for less money and put less effort into it. What were the results? In the ‘Acknowledged Condition’
– when we looked at it – people worked all the way down
to 15 cents. They worked quite a lot. In the ‘Shredded Condition,’
people stopped much faster. So people cared more about — They enjoyed more
the labor in the ‘Acknowledged Condition.’ What about the ‘Ignored Condition’?
Where does it sit in the middle? Is it close to the ‘Acknowledged,’
the ‘Shredded’ or somewhere in the middle? Well, very very close
to the ‘Shredded Condition.’ So, I guess the good news here is
that if you want to motivate people, simply looking at what they’ve done
and say, “I’ve acknowledged, I’ve seen that you’ve done something,”
seems to be sufficient. Even without the nice word
– just acknowledge people. On the other hand, it turns out that
if you really want to demotivate people, it’s incredibly easy! Shredding, of course, is the optimal way
to demotivate people! If you want to. But just ignoring what they’re doing
gets you almost all the way there. So this was all about demotivating people. There are lot’s of ways to demotivate people,
and we should try to avoid those. What about motivating people? What about the second part of this equation? And, for me the insight for this part
of the story came from IKEA. So, I don’t know about you,
but I have some IKEA furniture — and when I reflect back
on the experience, it turns out that it took me a long time to assemble
these instructions, to assemble this furniture. The instructions were not clear,
I would put things in the wrong place, I would have to disassemble it —
But what I’ve also noticed is that I keep on looking fondly
at this IKEA furniture. We share something in common that I think
is more than just buying something in the store. And you can wonder, “What happens when
you invest some of your love and effort and attention, even frustration,
into something?” Do you start loving it more? And there’s an old story – it’s kind of a nice story –
it’s a story about cake mixes. When they introduced cake mixes in the US, it turns out housewives
at the time did not accept them. They had mixes for all kinds of things:
for muffins, for bread — Cake mixes, not so much.
And they wondered why? The taste was perfectly fine. They found out that what was missing
was a feeling of labor. If you basically put some water in the cake mix,
mix it together, put it in the oven and the cake comes out —
You can’t take credit for that! (Laughter) If somebody comes and says, “Nice cake,
thank you!” you’ve not done anything! So what did they do? They took the eggs and the milk out of it. (Laughter) Now you put the cake mix, you break
some eggs, you put some milk — Now it’s your cake!
(Laughter) (Applause) So, how do we test this idea? We started by asking people to build origami. We gave people instructions
on how to fold origami. And these were people
who don’t really know how to do origami, so they came up with kind of
ugly origami, but that’s OK. And then we told them that
we actually owned that origami and we asked them, “How much
would you pay for you to keep it?” And we tried to measure how valuable
they thought this origami was. And people loved
the origamis that they created. (Laughter) Then we asked other people
that did not build that origami what they thought about this origami — (Laughter) And they didn’t like it as much. So the builders thought this origami was fantastic,
the evaluators not so much. Now, the question is:
are the builders, in their mind, do they think that they are
the only ones who love this origami? So, do I look at this origami and say,
“Oh, this is mine, I think it’s wonderful! I know that nobody would like it,
but for me it’s wonderful!” No. They think everybody
would love it as much as they do. (Laughter) The next thing was the IKEA effect,
right? The IKEA — What about the instructions?
What if the instructions are difficult and complex? So we gave the easy instructions to some people
and for other people we hid what’s on the top, which is the manual of
what does a fold mean and so on. So the hard instructions
were really baffling. What happened now? So, first of all, we got the basic result:
the builders loved their own origami more than the evaluators — What happens
when the instructions are more difficult? Now the builders love it even more,
and the evaluators dislike it even more. Why? Because objectively
it was worse off! So the evaluators saw the objective quality of these crumbled pieces of paper
and didn’t like it as much; the builders thought
it was even more fantastic! So, not only is labor leading to love,
more labor and more effort and more investment
leads to higher love. I think you could also
think about kids this way. So imagine
that you have kids and I ask you, “How much would you
sell me your kids for?” (Laughter) Your memory and attention,
and experience about them — And most people in a good day say,
“A lot of money!” (Laughter) But imagine you didn’t have your kids. And you went to the park, and you met
some kids very much like yours, and you played with them for a few hours,
and then you were about to say goodbye, and before you left, their parents said,
“By the way, you know, they’re for sale!” (Laughter) “How much would you pay for them?” Most people realize,
“not that much!” (Laughter) And I think it’s because the kids are really
kind of the optimal example for the IKEA effect. (Laughter) (Applause) They are complex, they are difficult,
the instruction manual is not that good — (Laughter) We invest a lot of effort in them
and our tremendous love [for] them is largely a part of us investing in them
rather than who they are. These are, by the way, my kids,
who are wonderful! And, not only are our kids wonderful, we don’t understand that other people
don’t see our kids in the way that we do. So what do we have to say
about all of this? There’s kind of two competing theories
about labor: Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Adam Smith gave us this wonderful example
of efficiency in the labor market. He showed how you can take a pin factory and if you take one laborer who makes all steps,
all 12 steps to create a pin, that’s really inefficient. And if you break the job into 12 pieces
and each person does their own piece of the work, the efficiency of the whole is incredibly increasing.
Dramatically increasing. And that’s really what the Industrial Revolution
has given us in terms of increasing productivity. Karl Marx, on the other hand, told us
that it’s about alienation of labor, and how much do you
feel connected to your labor. And these ideas are really standing
in opposition to each other. Which one is more important? The efficiency
or the feeling of connection to the labor? So if you think about taking a big job
and breaking it into pieces, it might become more efficient.
But as you break it into pieces, the people who do each of the pieces
don’t feel connected, to the same degree, to what they’re doing.
So, which one is more important? So, I think that in the Industrial Economy time
Smith was more correct than Marx. There were tremendous efficiency gains. But what’s happening now,
in the Knowledge Economy? What happens when people
have more control over what they’re doing? When we want people to think about their labor
in the shower and talk to friends, and when we want people to be fully engaged, and really immersed in what they’re doing — I think that now things have changed.
In the Knowledge Economy, I think the notion of Marx
is actually more important. And it might be useful to sometimes sacrifice some efficiency for more meaning at work. So, you know, we have this
very simple model of labor, which says that people work for money. And often we pay people just with this notion. But I think there are two things to consider:
the first one is that we care about [many] more things than money.
We care about meaning, we care about creation, challenge,
ownership, identity, pride, and so on — And the really good news about it is
that if we’re able to create workplaces that give people all of those things,
everybody would be better off. The workplace would be better off,
the individual would be better off — It’s a tremendous wonderful thing about
human nature that we can be motivated by a whole range of aspects. The question is, how do we use
the workplace and society in general to tap into all of those motivations? Thank you very much. (Applause)


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