Dan Ariely: What Pushes Us To Work Hard — Even When We Don't Have To? Behavioral economist Dan Ariely says we work hard not because we have to, but because we want to. He examines the intrinsic values we need to feel motivated to work.

What Pushes Us To Work Hard — Even When We Don't Have To?

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So what do you think? I mean, why do people work?

DAN ARIELY: People work for a ton of reasons.

RAZ: This is Dan Ariely. He teaches psychology and economics at Duke.

ARIELY: We work for identity and fulfillment and a sense of connection with other people. There's just many, many things, many factors that get us to work. Money is one of them and maybe not even the most important one.

RAZ: Dan studies motivation, and like Barry Schwartz, he's interested in what it is besides money that gets people to care about the work they do and to work hard, even when the incentives aren't obvious. Here's how Dan explained it on the TED stage.


ARIELY: If you think about it, there's all kinds of strange behaviors in the world around us. Think about something like mountaineering and mountain climbing. If you read books of people who climb mountains - difficult mountains - do you think that those books are full of moments of joy and happiness? No, they are full of misery. In fact, it's all about frostbite and difficulty to walk and the difficulty of breathing, cold, challenging circumstances. And if people were just trying to be happy, the moment they would get to the top, they would say this was a terrible mistake. I'll never do it again.


ARIELY: Instead, let me sit on the beach somewhere drinking mojitos. But instead, people go down, and after they recover, they go up again. And if you think about mountain climbing as an example, it suggests all kinds of things. It suggests that we care about reaching the end, a peak. It suggests that we care about the fight, about the challenge. It suggests that there's all kinds of other things that motivate us to work or behave in all kinds of ways. And for me personally, I started thinking about this after a student came to visit me. This was a student that was one of my students a few years earlier. And he came one day back to campus, and he told me the following story. He said that for more than two weeks, he was working on a PowerPoint presentation. He was working in a big bank, and this was in preparation for merger and acquisition. And he was working very hard on this presentation - graphs, tables, information - he stayed late at night every day. And the day before it was due, he sent his PowerPoint presentation to his boss, and his boss wrote him back and said, nice presentation, but the merger is canceled. And the guy was deeply depressed. Now, at the moment when he was working, he was actually quite happy. Every night, he was enjoying his work. He was staying late. He was perfecting this PowerPoint presentation. But knowing that nobody would ever watch that made him quite depressed.


RAZ: I mean, was that the thing, like, this idea that it was all for not that made him feel so deflated, even though the process seemed to be incredibly exciting?

ARIELY: Yeah, and there are really kind of a couple of things here. One is that sometimes something happens after the fact and it reframes our whole experience. But the other thing is that it basically got him to be very demotivated moving forward. And I was thinking, you know, from a functional perspective, everything was good, just that his work was never going to see the light of day. Nobody was going to ever see that. Imagine you were condemned to write Facebook and Twitter notes that nobody would ever see. It is just incredibly demotivating. And from that point, we started looking at small acts of meaning and how small acts of meaning can actually change how people evaluate things.

RAZ: So Dan took this idea, and he created an experiment to tease out how these small acts of meaning could affect someone's motivation to work.

ARIELY: So the first experiment we did was with Bionicles.

RAZ: Bionicles are kids' toys.

ARIELY: These are kind of little Lego robots.

RAZ: Think, you know, Transformers.

ARIELY: And they're made from about 40 pieces. So it takes a couple of minutes to build them.

RAZ: And Dan and his team asked the participants in this experiment to build Bionicles in exchange for a diminishing pay wage.

ARIELY: What does that mean? They came, and we said, for the first one, would you like to build this for $3? If they said yes, we gave it to them and they built it for $3. And then we said, do you want to build the next one for $2.70? And when they finished that, the next one for $2.40 and so on.

RAZ: And they did this to see whether there was, like, a magic number, you know, a number at which point each person would decide to stop building Bionicles.

ARIELY: At what point is the pleasure of building a Bionicle and the money that they're getting from it not enough to compensate for their time?

RAZ: OK, so that was one group, just building Bionicles for less and less money. But then, Dan took a second group, a different group, and he gave them the same challenge - to build Bionicles for a diminishing pay wage.

ARIELY: For $3 and then we said, do you want to build the next one for $2.70? And when they finished that, the next one for $2.40 and so on.

RAZ: But this time, there was a catch because as they were building the second Bionicle...

ARIELY: We were taking the first one apart and putting the pieces back into the original box.

RAZ: Like, right in front of them? That's cruel.

ARIELY: Yes, I know (laughter). And when they finished the second one, we said, hey, would you like to build a third one? And if they said yes, we gave them the first one, the one that they built and we took apart. So it was kind of back and forth on the same two Bionicles until they basically had enough. And what we wanted to contrast was really the notion that what you're building is going to be temporary and destroyed soon compared to destroyed in front of your eyes.

RAZ: At the end of the experiment, Dan found that on average, the people in the first group built 11 Bionicles. But the second group - the group who watched their Bionicles being destroyed - they built just seven. They did about half as much work. I mean, that's statistically significant - very significant.

ARIELY: It's not just statistically significant. It's a big difference, right? All of a sudden, you have you ask yourself, how much meaning helps motivate people to a higher degree?

RAZ: And the answer from Dan's Bionicle study - people tend to be motivated to do more work if the work they put in gets results - results they can see.


ARIELY: Soon after I finished running this experiment, I went to talk to a big software company in Seattle - can't tell you who they were, but they were a big company in Seattle. And this was a group within the software company that was put in a different building. And they asked them to innovate and create the next big product for this company. And a week before I showed up, the CEO of this big software company went to that group, 200 engineers, and canceled the project. And I stood there in front of 200 of the most depressed people I've ever talked to. And I described to them some of these Lego experiments, and they said they felt like they've just been through this experiment. And I asked them - I said, how many of you now show up to work later than you used to? And everybody raised their hand. I said, how many of you go home earlier than you used to? Everybody raised their hand.

I asked them, how many of you now add not so kosher thing to your expense reports? And they didn't really raise their hand, but they took me out to dinner and showed me what they could do with expense reports. And then I asked them - I said, what could the CEO have done to make you not as depressed? And they came up with all kinds of ideas. They said the CEO could've asked them to present to the whole company about their journey over the last two years and why they decide to do. He could have asked them to think about which aspect of their technology could fit with other parts of the organization. He could've asked them to build some prototypes, some next-generation prototype, and see how they would work. But the thing is that any one of those would require some effort and motivation. And I think the CEO basically did not understand the importance of meaning. But if you understood how important meaning is, then you would figure out that it's actually important to spend some time, energy and effort in getting people to care more about what they're doing.


RAZ: And how would you start to do that, say, in your own work? Well, Dan's research suggests you might have already experienced it if you've ever built a piece of furniture from IKEA.


ARIELY: I can't say I enjoy the process, but when I finish it, I seem to like those IKEA pieces of furniture more than I like other ones.

RAZ: The IKEA effect and what it can teach us about work in just a moment. Our show today - ideas about why we work. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, why we work and ideas behind the meaning of work. And just before the break, we were hearing from behavioral economist Dan Ariely about something he calls the IKEA effect.


ARIELY: And IKEA is a store with kind of OK furniture that takes a long time to assemble. And...


ARIELY: ...I don't know about you, but every time I assemble one of those, it takes me much longer, it's much more effortful, it's much more confusing.

RAZ: So Dan argues precisely because you worked hard putting together that furniture, you actually enjoy the results more. You feel a sense of pride and ownership in what you created. So to study that idea, Dan set up an experiment.


ARIELY: We asked people to build some origami. We gave them instructions to - how to create origami and we gave them a sheet of paper. And they build something that was really quite ugly. But then we told them - we said, look, this origami really belongs to us. You worked for us, but I'll tell you what - we'll sell it to you. How much do you want to pay for it? And we had two types of people.

We had the people who build it, and we had the people who did not build it and just looked at it as external observers. And what we found were - that the builders thought that these were beautiful pieces of origami....


ARIELY: ...And they were willing to pay for them five times more than the people who just evaluated them externally. Now, you could say if you were a builder, do you think that, oh, I love this origami, but I know that nobody else would love it? Or do you think I love this origami and everybody else would love it as well? Turns out, the builders not only love the origami more, they thought that everybody else would love it more as well. In the next version, we try to do the IKEA effect. We tried to make it more difficult by hiding the instructions, so now this was tougher.

What happened? Well, in an objective way, the origami now was uglier, was more difficult. Now, when we looked at the easier origami, we saw the same thing - builder loved it more, evaluators loved it less. When you looked at the hard instructions, the effect was larger. Why? Because now, the builders loved it even more. They put all this extra effort into it and evaluators - they loved it even less because, in reality, it was even uglier than the first version. Of course, this tells you about something about how we evaluate things.

RAZ: OK, but when it comes to work, you know, and finding meaning and ownership in that work, I mean, how much of it has to do with the work environment and how much of that is, you know, how a person is wired?

ARIELY: Yeah, so think about motivation. If you take somebody who is, you know, working at this start-up and they breathe and live and enjoy everything they do, and then you take somebody who is basically on an assembly line doing something incredibly boring all the time, is this a personality difference? Was one of them born like this and the other one born the other way? Or could we have designed the environment and would switch them? And I think, yes, there are some individual differences. But a lot of it has to do with the kind of environments we create, the kind of work environment we create and how much we allow motivation to come forward.


ARIELY: If you think about Adam Smith versus Karl Marx, Adam Smith had the very important notion of efficiency. He gave an example of a pin factory. He said pins have 12 different steps, and if one person does all 12 steps, production is very low. But if you get one person to do step one and one person to do step two and step three and so on, production can increase tremendously. And indeed, this is a great example and the reason for the Industrial Revolution and efficiency.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, said that the alienation of labor is incredibly important and how people think about the connection to what they're doing. And if you make all 12 steps, you care about the pin. But if you make one step every time, maybe you don't care as much. And I think that in the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith was more correct than Karl Marx. But the reality - that we've switched, and now we're in the knowledge economy. And you can ask yourself, what happens in a knowledge economy? Is efficiency still more important than meaning?

I think the answer is no. I think that as we move through situations in which people have to decide on their own about how much effort, attention, caring, how connected they feel to it - are they thinking about labor on their way to work and in the shower and so on? All of a sudden, Marx has more things to say to us. So when we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing. But the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it - meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etcetera.

And the good news is that if we added all of those components and thought about them, how do we create our own meaning, pride, motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace and for the employees, I think we could get people to both be more productive and happier. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely. You should definitely check out all of his talks. You can find them at TED.com.

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