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/ Jun 22, 2017

The Puzzle of Motivation

Posted by The Coaching Room

The puzzle of motivation | Dan Pink

The following article is derived from the accompanying video. It is provided as an additional resource for your reading convenience.

Dan Pink in this Ted Talk tells his audience, “Some of you might know what is called the candle problem. It was created in 1945 by a psychologist named Karl Duncker. He created this experiment that is used in many other experiments in behavioral science. And here's how it works. Suppose I'm the experimenter. I bring you into a room. I give you a candle, some thumbtacks and some matches. And I say to you, "Your job is to attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn't drip onto the table." Now what would you do?”

 

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“Many people begin trying to thumbtack the candle to the wall. Doesn't work. I saw somebody kind of make the motion over here --some people have a great idea where they light the match, melt the side of the candle, try to adhere it to the wall. It's an awesome idea. Doesn't work. And eventually, after five or ten minutes, most people figure out the solution, which you can see here”, Pink says.

Pink continues by stating, “The key is to overcome what's called functional fixedness. You look at that box and you see it only as a receptacle for the tacks. But it can also have this other function, as a platform for the candle. The candle problem. I want to tell you about an experiment using the candle problem, done by a scientist named Sam Glucksberg, who is now at Princeton University, US. This shows the power of incentives. He gathered his participants and said: "I'm going to time you, how quickly you can solve this problem."

To one group Gluckberg said, "I'm going to time you to establish norms, averages for how long it typically takes someone to solve this sort of problem." To the second group he offered rewards. He said, "If you're in the top 25% of the fastest times, you get five dollars. If you're the fastest of everyone we're testing here today, you get 20 dollars."

 

Pink says, “Now this is several years ago, adjusted for inflation, it's a decent sum of money for a few minutes of work. It's a nice motivator. Question: How much faster did this group solve the problem? Answer: It took them, on average, three and a half minutes longer. 3.5 min longer. This makes no sense, right? I mean, I'm an American. I believe in free markets. That's not how it's supposed to work, right?”

“If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show. Incentivize them. That's how business works. But that's not happening here. You've got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity”, Pink opines to his audience.

“What's interesting about this experiment is that it's not an aberration. This has been replicated over and over again for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators -- if you do this, then you get that --work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don't work or, often, they do harm.”

“This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored. I spent the last couple of years looking at the science of human motivation, particularly the dynamics of extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators. And I'm telling you, it's not even close. If you look at the science, there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does”, Pink says.

 

“What's alarming here is that our business operating system --think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources-- it's built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks. That's actually fine for many kinds of 20th century tasks. But for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn't work, often doesn't work, and often does harm”, Pink goes on to say.

“Dan Ariely, one of the great economists of our time, he and three colleagues did a study of some MIT students. They gave these MIT students a bunch of games, games that involved creativity, and motor skills, and concentration. And he offered them, for performance, three levels of rewards:small reward, medium reward, large reward. If you do really well you get the large reward, on down. What happened? As long as the task involved only mechanical skill bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. Okay? But once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.”

Then they said, "Let's see if there's any cultural bias here. Let's go to Madurai, India and test it." Standard of living is lower. In Madurai, a reward that is modest in North American standards, is more meaningful there. Same deal. A bunch of games, three levels of rewards. What happens? People offered the medium level of rewards did no better than people offered the small rewards. But this time, people offered the highest rewards, they did the worst of all in eight of the nine tasks we examined across three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance”, Pink explains.

 

Pink then asks if this is some kind of touchy-feely socialist conspiracy going on here? “No”, he says.  “These are economists from MIT, from Carnegie Mellon, from the University of Chicago. Do you know who sponsored this research? The Federal Reserve Bank of the United States. That's the American experience.”

Pink later tells his audience, “If we really want to get out of this economic mess, if we really want high performance on those definitional tasks of the 21st century, the solution is not to do more of the wrong things, to entice people with a sweeter carrot, or threaten them with a sharper stick. We need a whole new approach. The good news is that the scientists who've been studying motivation have given us this new approach. It's built much more around intrinsic motivation, around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, they're interesting, or part of something important. And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

 

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  • Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

These are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses.”

 

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Dan Pink is an author of books about behavior science, work, and management. He was host and co-executive producer of the National Geographic Channel TV series “Crowd Control”.

 

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