Self Help

Payoff The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations (TED Books) - Dan Ariely

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Matheus Puppe

· 13 min read



  • The author received a call asking him to visit a woman named Alice at the hospital. Alice’s two teenage children had been badly burned in a fire.

  • The author had experienced a similar tragic accident as a teenager where 70% of his body was burned.

  • Alice asked the author what she should tell her children about their injuries, treatments, and recovery process based on his own experiences.

  • The author shared some of his memories from being hospitalized as a teenager, including wanting to understand all the medical equipment and noises, how long the pain would last, and when relief may come - as a way to feel more in control.

  • A few days later, Alice called the author again crying - one of her children had passed away. She asked if she should tell the surviving son about his sibling’s death.

  • The author was moved to help Alice despite disliking hospitals, showing how motivation can drive us to difficult situations when helping others. The personal connection to Alice’s situation sparked the author’s willingness to relive his own trauma to provide guidance.

  • The author recalls getting a request from a woman named Alice to send her son Bill, who was recovering from serious injuries in the hospital, an optimistic message about his recovery.

  • The author struggled with how honest and optimistic to be, given how difficult and painful his own recovery process was from similar injuries 30 years prior.

  • He remembers looking at himself in the mirror after his first unassisted walk and being shocked by his disfigured appearance. He also recalls the ongoing pain and challenges from scar tissue shrinkage.

  • After much contemplation and crying, the author sent Bill a voice message acknowledging the difficulties but also optimism from advances in technology and flexible work options.

  • The author later visits Bill and sees him unsuccessfully try to negotiate delaying a painful treatment, reminding him of his own past helplessness.

  • This makes the author realize the devastating role helplessness plays and how deeply it shapes lives and motivations to reclaim control, even in small ways. Finding meaning can come even from sharing in others’ pain.

  • The speaker was invited to talk to a group of engineers about motivation and decision-making.

  • The engineers had been working hard for years on an innovative new project that they hoped would transform the company. They put in long hours with enthusiasm.

  • However, right before the speaker’s talk, the CEO cancelled the project. The engineers were devastated to have their work dismantled after putting so much effort into it.

  • The speaker described an experiment where participants built Lego creatures for pay. One group got to keep their completed builds, feeling a sense of accomplishment. The other group had their builds taken apart right away, like the story of Sisyphus endlessly rolling a boulder.

  • Those who enjoyed the task kept building more when their work remained, but dismantling creations crushed any joy. Similarly, cancelling the engineers’ project destroyed their motivation after so much effort.

  • The engineers related their experience to a scene in the movie The Last Castle where a prisoner’s punishment involves endlessly moving rocks back and forth, breaking his spirit. Cancelling the project had this similar demotivating effect on the engineers.

  • Experiments were conducted showing that acknowledging and validating people’s work increases motivation, while ignoring or invalidating their work significantly reduces motivation.

  • Software engineers identified with these findings, as their recent project cancellation left them feeling demotivated and disconnected from their work.

  • The view of labor as merely an exchange of work for wages persists from the industrial era, but modern research shows non-monetary factors like meaningful work and acknowledgement are also important for motivation.

  • Better ways the CEO could have handled the project cancellation to avoid demotivating the engineers include asking them to build prototypes for future projects, identify relevant technologies for other teams, or present their learnings company-wide. This would have provided a sense of progress and connection rather than an abrupt ending.

  • In summary, invalidating or meaningless work reduces motivation, while acknowledgement, progress and connection to broader purpose can help maintain motivation even when specific tasks or projects end. The engineers’ experience reflected these findings on motivation and futile labor.

The speaker tells the story of visiting a group of software engineers who were demoralized after their CEO abruptly canceled a major two-year project they had been working on. Through relating experiments on intrinsic motivation, the speaker explains how even small acts that undermine autonomy, competence, or relatedness can significantly decrease motivation and productivity.

The engineers recognized aspects of their own experience in the experiments. The cancellation damaged not just their sense of the work’s value, but also their trust, identity, and longer-term aspirations tied to the company. As a result, some highly skilled engineers quit.

More broadly, the speaker argues many work environments unintentionally undermine motivation through obstacles like deindividualizing hierarchies, identical cubicles that denote replaceability, and a lack of space for personal expression. However, companies can also actively foster meaning, connection, creativity and appreciation for workers through supportive environments, respect, and a sense of individual value beyond mere productivity.

  • Motivating factors in our lives are often similar throughout our lives. As adults, companies can play a quasi-parental role by either nurturing or hampering motivation.

  • We can increase our own motivation by changing our mental framing or perspective on tasks. Finding meaning, purpose, opportunities to learn or be creative within routine work can make it more engaging.

  • There is an “IKEA effect” - we tend to feel more attached to and value things we’ve created or assembled ourselves through effort. Experiments show people willing to pay more for origami creatures they folded themselves versus those folded by others.

  • This sense of ownership and pride comes from expending effort. Early cake mix companies found housewives didn’t feel mixes where you just add water were truly “theirs.” Only when they added other ingredients did they feel pride and ownership in the results.

  • We are often egocentrically biased, believing others will value our creations as much as we do, when in reality outsiders are more objective judges. Greater effort expended leads to stronger feelings of attachment to our work.

So in summary, motivation comes both from external factors like workplace culture, but also how we internally frame tasks and the potential for creativity, learning, effort and feelings of ownership and pride in our work or creations.

  • The passage discusses how people derive a strong sense of identity, recognition and accomplishment from creative work and tasks, even simple ones like building Bionicles or making origami. Merely receiving acknowledgment or putting more effort into a task enhances how people feel about their creations.

  • This suggests real-world jobs where people spend significant time on projects will have an even stronger connection to their identity. A software engineer who spent years on a project will likely identify strongly with that work.

  • Zappos understands the importance of motivation and creating an environment where people feel connected, supported in personal goals, and encouraged to be creative. This contributes to it being a top company to work for.

  • As consumers can now customize more products and be involved in creative projects, personalizing or designing objects can make them more meaningful. Even manufactured goods may feel more like our own creations if we contribute to the design.

  • Home ownership allows for intense customization and personalized design, showing how people take pride in making spaces uniquely theirs, even if others may not have the same tastes.

  • Young children already care strongly about ideas they generate and will prefer creations that stem from their own concepts over ones just involving physical work. Getting credit for ideas is important very early on.

  • External motivators like threats, rewards, and incentives are commonly seen as crucial for inspiring hard work, but may not be as effective as believed.

  • Motivation is complex and depends on the context, like motivating a war-torn nation versus an NBA team.

  • As a startup CEO setting up policies, determining the right mix of tangible (pay, bonuses) and intangible (praise, camaraderie) benefits is difficult to get right for retaining employees.

  • Policymakers aim to use incentives like rewards and penalties to motivate behaviors through regulations, but often fail to consider nuanced differences in what really motivates teachers, doctors, etc. and apply motivations too simplistically as a “payment for performance” model. Getting motivation right is challenging for both companies and policymakers.

  • The experiment tested the effectiveness of different types of bonuses/incentives on worker performance at an Intel semiconductor production facility.

  • Workers were divided into four conditions: monetary bonus, pizza voucher bonus, compliment bonus, and control (no bonus).

  • On the first day of the work cycle, any incentive (monetary, pizza voucher, compliment) improved performance over the control. The monetary bonus had the smallest effect, while the pizza voucher and compliment had similar, larger effects.

  • However, on subsequent days, the monetary bonus had a demotivating effect, with performance dropping significantly compared to the control. Workers seemed to feel they did not need to work as hard since they were not receiving another bonus.

  • The pizza voucher and compliment conditions did not have as strong a demotivating effect on later days. Performance decayed more slowly and remained closer to the control level.

  • Overall for the work week, the monetary bonus resulted in higher pay but lower overall performance compared to no bonus, due to the demotivating effect on later days.

So in summary, while any incentive boosted initial performance, the monetary bonus had unintended demotivating effects on subsequent days, showing that the type of incentive can impact both motivation and demotivation.

  • Experiments at Intel found that monetary bonuses actually decreased employee performance at a semiconductor factory, contrary to expectations. When researchers suggested testing bonuses for top management, executives refused.

  • Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations do not simply add up. Adding money can undermine intrinsic motivation and engagement. People are motivated by more than just pay - they want meaningful work and human connections.

  • Timing is important - people focus on intrinsic enjoyment while doing a task, but overemphasize extrinsic rewards like pay when planning a task. This makes it hard to predict what truly motivates people.

  • Social norms also strongly influence motivation. Adding money where a caring relationship exists, like thanking your mother-in-law with cash after Thanksgiving, can backfire by undermining goodwill.

  • Relationships at work don’t have to be zero-sum. Taking a “expanding pie” view and focusing on meaningful work, autonomy, trust and recognition can motivate employees more than money alone by fostering connection and engagement. Even small things like workplace mood can significantly impact motivation and performance.

The passage discusses the value of long-term relationships and commitments over short-term transactional ones. It argues that people are more motivated and willing to invest their energy and care into relationships that are seen as long-term investments, rather than temporary arrangements that last only a day or week. Drawing parallels to marriage and universities’ commitments to professors through tenure, it suggests businesses can foster long-term commitment by investing in employees’ education, health, well-being, growth and career paths within the company. While long-term guarantees are difficult, these actions can strengthen the perceived time frame of commitment between employer and employee. Overall, the passage highlights how viewing relationships through a long-term lens, rather than short transactions, enhances motivation and dedication for all involved.

  • Trust and goodwill are foundational to well-functioning human interactions and society. We extend trust to others everyday through our work and personal lives.

  • Reciprocity of trust and goodwill are important - as children we learn this through sharing with others, and as adults we build credit by repaying debts on time.

  • However, trust can be easily eroded. Overly legalistic contracts between businesses, for example, imply distrust and kill goodwill between parties.

  • Even well-intentioned plans like two friends raising a child together broke down once a lawyer got involved, highlighting how conceptualizing relationships formally versus with commitment changes dynamics.

  • Nourishing long-term goodwill is important for motivation, innovation and cohesion at work. Strict rules and short-term bonuses can backfire by removing human connection. Companies need to make building goodwill a core value through gestures of appreciation.

The main points are that trust and goodwill are fundamentally important for human and social functioning, but also fragile, so we must approach relationships with commitment rather than just legalities or short-term incentives to genuinely foster long-term mutual understanding and cooperation.

  • The passage discusses people’s desire for symbolic immortality and continuing meaning after death, even if they don’t literally believe in an afterlife. Examples are given of elaborate tombs and burials with provisions for the afterlife.

  • Lady Dai, a 2,100 year old Chinese mummy, meticulously planned her burial with everything she needed to continue her lavish lifestyle after death, showing her desire for symbolic immortality.

  • Other examples are given of people being buried with possessions like cars, cell phones, etc. even if they won’t benefit from them after death, demonstrating a psychological need to continue existing symbolically.

  • A hypothetical scenario is described of a woman, Naomi, writing her will and considering how to divide her estate between her two sons - one who was successful and one who was a rebel. This illustrates how wills allow people to shape perceptions after death.

  • In sum, the passage argues people have deep-seated psychological motivations to continue existing symbolically after death through things like elaborate burials, wills, and strange requests in their wishes. This stems from a desire for continued meaning and remembrance.

  • Motivation is an incredibly complex topic that encompasses nearly every aspect of human behavior and decision-making. Like searching for “the answer to life, the universe, and everything,” understanding motivation fully may not have a single answer.

  • Money is not as simple or powerful a motivator as often assumed. Intangible factors like recognition, sense of accomplishment, commitment, and finding meaning/purpose are also important.

  • The desire for symbolic immortality and to be remembered after death motivates behaviors like charitable contributions, art/cultural works, and flashy displays.

  • Funerals reveal our need for symbolic immortality and role in others’ lives. People often overspend on funerals out of emotional motivations rather than financial logic.

  • Our strongest motivator may be our connections to others. Stories from a burn ward volunteer and Victor Frankl in a Nazi camp illustrate how relationships can inspire strength through difficult times.

  • Overall, motivation stems from complex interactions of tangible and intangible factors related to our relationships, purpose, accomplishments, mortality, and search for meaning - not any single dimension. Understanding this complexity is key.

Here is a summary of the provided text:

  • The author is Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics who studies human motivation. He hopes to better understand the hidden, intangible drivers of human motivation so we can more effectively motivate ourselves and others in a positive way.

  • While perpetual motion machines that create free energy are impossible according to physics, human motivation can have “perpetual energy” if we invest in connection, meaning, ownership, and long-term thinking. This approach can generate immense returns in terms of human motivation and productivity.

  • Understanding motivation is complex, but exploring its thousands of nuances could reveal secrets to more productivity, love, and meaning. The journey of understanding motivation will be exciting, important, and useful.

  • In the acknowledgments, Ariely thanks colleagues, research assistants, his agent, editor, and family for their contributions to his work studying human motivation. He notes research depends on many collaborators.

  • Some key aspects explored include intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, how human connections and meaning impact drive, and investigating less tangible factors that influence human drives and decision-making. The overall goal is to better motivate people through positive, relationship-based approaches rather than just external incentives.

This passage does not provide a clear summary point. It consists of bibliographic citations and copyright information, but does not analyze or synthesize the sources into a coherent summary. A proper summary would discuss and connect the key ideas and findings across the cited works.

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