Predictably Irrational – basic human motivations:  Dan Ariely at TEDxMidwest

Predictably Irrational – basic human motivations: Dan Ariely at TEDxMidwest


Translator: John Mackenzie
Reviewer: Sebastian Betti OK, so I want to talk today
a little about human motivation. What gets us to care
and act, and be active. And the starting point, especially being in Chicago,
close to the University of Chicago, in the Economics Department of Chicago. I think it is worthwhile to think that
our basic idea about human motivation is that we think about people like rats. People don’t like to work. If we were left to our own accord
what we would be doing, we would be on a beach
somewhere sipping mojitos… And the ony reason we work
is because we need to get money, so that we can eventually sit
on the beach drinking mojitos. (Laughter) But the basic motivation
is to enjoy leisure and not work and everything else is just a distraction
in order so we can do that. And it is a fine model,
but we should ask ourselves, is this a correct depiction
of human motivation is this really what gets us
to act and to do things. And one challenge you can think
about is mountain climbing. If you look at people
who have climbed different mountains and their depictions,
and histories and stories you would think this is the most
miserable thing in the world. People are cold, and have frostbite It’s hard to breathe, it’s difficult. I climbed a little peak
in the Himalayas many years ago and you would think that
you would get to the top, and sit there and enjoy the view. No! It’s cold,
it’s miserable, you’re tired. Just go down as fast as possible
from that point on. (Laughter) And if you think about this behavior and say to yourself, here is something
that every moment seems like agony, it just seems like a punishment and people go down, and all
they want to do is go up again. They want to recover first,
but then they want to go up again. How does this view fit with our notion of people sitting on the beach drinking mojitos? It looks like people are either
suckers for punishment. Right? We want to punish ourselves. Or, that what really motivates us
is not relaxation, it’s not comfort,
it’s other things. It’s about achievement,
it’s about conquering, it’s about pursuing some goal,
it’s about arriving at some peak. I actually became interested in this topic when one of my ex-students came to talk to me. His name was David,
he left university a few years earlier and he became a consultant,
or some banker on Wall Street. And he worked for a big bank and he told me that for a few weeks
he worked on a big presentation for a merger that was going to happen. He worked evenings, he worked overtime
to create this beautiful presentation with statistics and graph
and description. He was really proud of his work,
and he really enjoyed it. And then he sent it to his boss,
and his boss said, “David, great job,
the merger is cancelled.” And he was just devastated! And the interesting thing about this is that he said that from a functional
perspective everything was great. Here he was, he did a good job,
he enjoyed it while he was doing it, his boss appreciated it,
and he was certain that he would get
a raise when the time came but at the same time
he couldn’t care now. And he was working on another document now,
and just couldn’t care to the same degree. Now the question is,
what happened to him? What is it? Everything functional was OK,
but something was missing. So to look at this I decided to do
a couple of little experiments. And the experiments we started with
were about building Bionicles. So, Bionicles are little Lego robots,
with about forty pieces, and you’re going to build them. And we got people to come
to the Student Center and we said, “Hey, why don’t you
build Legos for money?” You want to build the first one?
You can get three dollars for it. After they finished the first one we asked,
“Do you want to build another one?” “This one you can get $2.70 for. When you’ve finished this one,
do you want another one, for $2.40?” $2.10 $1.80 And so on at a a diminishing pay rate. And people basically had
to decide when they want to stop. At what time, the money
they were getting from building Legos
was not worth their time. And we did this in one of two conditions. The first one was just the way
I described to you now. People build one Lego after another,
after another, after another and when they finished
building all these Legos when they finished
building each of them, we took them,
we put them under the desk and we told them that when
they finished the whole experiment we would take them,
we would break them back, and we would put them back
in the boxes for the next participant. This is what we call
the ‘meaningful’ condition. Not a really big meaning, we are academics,
but little meaning. (Laughter) The second experiment,
we called the Sisyphic condition. And in this experiment people
started building one Lego and when they finished it
we took it back from them and said: “Do you want
to build another one?” And if they wanted to build another one
we handed them the second one, but as they were working on the second one, we were taking apart the first one
in front of their eyes. And then if they wanted to build a third one,
we would give them that one back So it was a complete recycling. And we called this the Sisyphic
condition, after Sisyphus, who pushed the same rock over
the same hill over and over. And we can ask ourselves
how much of the demotivating aspects of Sisyphus come from the fact that he pushed the same rock on the same hill versus if it was a different hill every time. So building something,
having it destroyed in front of your eyes
and building it again seems kind of an essential element
for being unmotivated and here is what we got. In a meaningful condition people
build about eleven robots and in the Sisyphus condition
they build seven. We also asked other people
who did not participate in the experiment to predict
what would people do. How much more would people build in a ‘meaningful’
condition than in a ‘Sisyphic’ condition. And people predicted correctly
but dramatically underestimated the effect. People thought that the difference
would be about one robot but the difference
was much, much larger. So we all understand
that meaning is important we just dramatically underestimate
how important this is. And I will tell you that I recently went
to give a talk at a big software company. And this was a company
where a group of people worked for two years designing
a particular product, and they thought this was
the best product for this company. And after two years of working on it, the week before I came,
the CEO cancelled he project and I’ve never seen a group of more
demotivated people in my life. And they all told me they felt like
they were part of this Lego experiment. They worked for a long time and something
was just destroyed in front of them. And I think basically their boss had
the same mistake as our prediction experiment where he understood that meaning
is probably a little bit important, but just didn’t understand how big it is and now he had a group of people
who were completely demotivated, and so on. Now, there was another interesting
part of this experiment which is if you look
at the correlation between how much people love Legos naturally
and how much they persisted, you would expect that people
who love Lego would build a lot and people who don’t love Lego
would build a little; there would be some individual difference. And indeed there [were] individual differences In a meaningful condition people
who loved Legos built more and people who didn’t love them
didn’t build as many. In the Sisyphic condition
the correlation was zero, which tells me that we basically
choked every inch of enjoyment people had naturally from Legos. People come with a natural appreciation
for Legos, some people, and we were basically able
to crush that… (Laughter) So, the next experiment
we wanted to find out what even smaller differences could make. So we gave people a sheet of paper
with a lot of letters on it and we said, “Look for two letters next
to each other that are the same,” it was a random set
and we did the same thing. We paid them more for the first sheet,
less for the next sheet, and so on. And we had three conditions. In the first condition, every time
you gave me a sheet, if I was the experimenter, I would ask you to write your name
on the top, I would look at it like this. I would say “Aha!” and
I would put it on the pile. In the next condition you didn’t have
to write your name. I would just take the sheet of paper and,
without looking at it, I would just put it
on the big pile of paper; no acknowledgement,
just putting it down. In the third condition,
if you gave me a sheet of paper, I immediately took it
and shredded it. (Laughter) And now the question is how much
would people work in those three conditions. And what I’m going to show you here
is what is the minimum amount of money people
are willing to work for, right? How long did it go, so low amounts
of money mean that people enjoy it more. So we got the replication
on the first result. In the acknowledged condition
when you say, “Aha!” people were willing
to work up to $0.15 per page really low wages. In the shredded condition
they wanted twice as much money and the question is, what happens
in the ignored condition? Is the ignored condition like the shredded? Is it like the acknowledged?
Is it somewhere in the middle? It turns out it was very similar
to the shredded condition. So if you really want to demotivate
people shredding their work is really good for that.
(Laughter) But it turns out that
simply ignoring them gets you a big part of the way,
in fact, almost… (Laughter) So this was one part of motivation, it’s about feeling meaning
for what you are doing and acknowledged and so on,
and we mostly did this by destroying people’s motivation. Let’s think for a second
about the other part, that is how we can get people
to be more motivated. How we can get people to do more and, the idea came to me
here after going to IKEA so I don’t know about you, but I like IKEA
but every time I get this furniture, I find myself that it takes me much longer
than I expected to build this and the instructions seem confusing. I often do a step and then have to backtrack and when I have to guess something I think
I guess wrong more than 50% of the time. Lots of these things,
and the thought is: Is it that a result of this?
Do I love my furniture more? The fact that I have to build them,
that I create them, does that create a particular attachment
between me and my furniture? I call this the IKEA effect And some evidence for this
exists from cake mixes. So when cake mixes came up in the fifties to the surprise of the people
who made up the cake mixes they were not very popular and the question is, why? Pie crusts were popular,
cookies were popular all kinds of other ready mixes
were popular, but not cakes. And one of the theories was maybe people
didn’t have to do much for these cakes maybe if you take a mix and add some water put it in the oven and then make it and someone says, “What a great cake!,”
you just can’t feel good about it. Maybe it was the fact
that it didn’t require as much work that made
cake mixes not as appealing. This was known as the ‘egg theory.’ And what they did to test it was,
they took the eggs out of the cake mix. All of a sudden the cake mix was the same, you just had to add eggs
and some milk to it. What happened now? Cake mixes
became much more popular. Somehow having to put work into
something makes it more appealing. We decided to try this out, so we gave people instructions to do origami on the top you have the — (Laughter) — on the top you have a list
of what all the signs mean and then you have a list of instruction
of how to do origami that is not that easy to do and we asked people to do it. And what happened?
People created stuff that didn’t really look like
what it was supposed to, these were not origami experts. But if you looked at how much
people valued the origami there were some auctions and people
could bid for it, and so on. It turns out that people
who did not build the origami thought it wasn’t that exciting, and people who built the origami
thought it was just fantastic. People who built the origami
thought it was great. But, moreover,
people who built the origami when we asked them to predict how much
the other people valued this origami they thought they would value them
as much as they did. So what happened is that
the people who build the origami not only thought it was wonderful, they also thought that other people
would view it their way. Now we had another condition
that was again going back to IKEA we had people who got easy instructions and for some people we hid the top part so they didn’t really have
the rules for how this works out and unsurprisingly they
built even worse origamis they were much uglier.
(Laughter) What happened to the evaluations? People who built it thought it was better
than people who just evaluated it, but people who got the hard
instructions liked them even more all of a sudden they put more into it,
it was more difficult, more challenging they loved it more. And what about the people
who evaluated it? They loved it even less because it was
objectively uglier. (Laughter) I think we can think about
a good metaphor for this as kids. These are my kids by the way. And imagine that I asked you,
“How much would you sell me your kids for?” Imagine I could erase your memories and your thoughts and your
emotions about your kids, how much money would I need
to give you to compensate you for that? Most people on good days would say
lots and lots of money. Or imagine that you didn’t have kids
and you came to some playground and you met some kids and you played
with them for a few hours and after a few hours
you knew a lot about them and as you said goodbye
the parents of the kids said, “By the way, they’re for sale
if you’re interested.” (Laughter) How much would you pay? And most of us would realize
that not that much because the fact is — (Laughter) — the fact is we value our kids
largely because they’re ours. And a little bit like the
IKEA furniture it’s because they’re ours and we put
so much effort into them and because it’s hard
and complex and difficult, instructions are not clear,
and so on. (Laughter) So, what I want to propose is that you know we have this incredibly
simple model of labor — motivation is payment,
that’s basically it and if you think about what
we do in the workplace it’s basically the model we use. But this is not the right model in fact if you think about anything
that you see in the world, it’s very hard to think that this model
is a good description of human behavior. It doesn’t describe zero,
but it definitely is not a really good
description of what happens. In reality we have lots of other things we have meaning, the feeling of creation,
challenges, and so on and so forth. And unless we understand
those different elements I don’t think we could
create the right environment. Now just this one side comment,
we can take money and we can make it
fulfill other motivations. For example, we can get pride,
and get people to be proud of how much money they get. We can get accomplishment,
we can get competition money can be a substitute
for all of those other motivations but it doesn’t mean it’s inherently
about all of those motivations. Human beings are complex,
and have lots of things that we strive for like in mountain climbings, and reducing all of it
to just what salary we’re getting is just not the right model. And finally, I wanted
to tell you something about Adam Smith versus Karl Marx. Adam Smith has this notion
about efficiency in the workplace. The notion was, if you take
for example the creation of a pin in the old days, and you say:
What’s the efficient way to create a pin? He says if one person creates all the steps
to make a pin, it’s incredibly inefficient but if you get twelve people, and each
of them makes one step of creating a pin, all of a sudden, together,
there’s a huge efficiency in production and the output from the factory
can be dramatically higher. And that was the notion
of efficiency and productivity. Karl Marx, on the other hand,
had this notion about the alienation of labor; how connected do you feel from it. And if you take the creation
of a pin, and you make it into twelve steps,
and each person does one step how connected do people feel,
if they’re doing the same thing all the time all day, they never see the progression or creation of the final product
of what they are doing. And I think that in the preindustrial age
Adam Smith was right; you could get more value
out of increased efficiency than you can get from
the alienation of work. But we are not in that age, we are now
in some kind of knowledge economy for lots of things that we care about. And I think that in the knowledge economy
things actually have reversed. If you say, “Let’s take a task, programming,
creating a computer, whatever it is… and break it into lots of little tasks
to make everything much more efficient.” Maybe we’d get more efficiency
in the Adam Smith kind of world but would we get the same kind of improving,
caring, motivation and meaning? And perhaps what we are doing
is just doing the wrong approach and we take big tasks
and try to divide them into lots of things,
we are actually hurting ourselves. So, I think that now things
are actually reversed. And just as a final comment, I think we can do lots of things
to get people to motivate. I think we can do things to get people
to motivate and to do much more but at least, I think,
we should try to not replicate the Lego experiment in day to day life. At least, we should try
to not decrease people’s motivation which is something I feel
we are doing way too often. Thank you very much! (Applause)

45 thoughts on “Predictably Irrational – basic human motivations: Dan Ariely at TEDxMidwest

  1. I was lucky enough to take his online course on Coursera last year. It's always so amazing to hear about his research and insights. Truly a great mind and a wonderful human being.. One of the most amazing behavioral economics professors of our time.

  2. What he is talking about is the drive/motivation to create a self-positive image, so we can feel great about ourselves. Only clinical depressed have given up trying to create a self-positive image, and they feel worthless, hopeless and helpless. But psychologically healthy people, they want to do something, that makes them construct a self in their mind (and in others mind) that is great. A great identity. This has been developed in homo sapiens and earlier species leading up to homo sapiens, because these species are social in nature. And if they want to increase chances to reproduce their genes and reproduce the genes more than others, then they need social status in the group. So they need a motivation to create a positive-self-image, which others in the group will accept as 'great', so the individual will get great social status, and then everyone want to be the individuals girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse etc. So that is a great motivator in our unconscious self, that drives our conscious self to achieve what a culture would evaluate/value as great.

  3. This explains so much.  Why I was a good leader as a kid (I always had a goal I wanted to accomplish, from making grass hut villages to making spaceships out of wooden boards).

    And why I absolutely revile the idea of "working for someone".  All my experiences "working for someone" were just disguised versions of the Lego experiment.

    I'll have to remember not to do that to people.  I know how off-putting it is.

  4. His experiment is not complete, he should perform one that every time participant finished the task, you increase his/her wages, from $3, $3.1, $3.4, $4 and so on, then the real conclusion can be achieved

  5. His experiment is not complete, he should perform one that every time participant finished the task, you increase his/her wages, from $3, $3.1, $3.4, $4 and so on, then the real conclusion can be achieved

  6. Everything this guy discusses was established long ago by Edward Locke (goal-setting theory), Ryan Deci (importance of intrinsically motivating, interesting, and challenging work), and Richard Hackman in his model of job characteristics (jobs which allow completion of a whole, complete piece of work that is meaningful, autonomous, provides feedback, and has variety). If this guy is receiving funding, it is money wasted on replications without citing or pointing to the original sources. In essence, why spend money on research that is re-discovering the periodical table, DNA structure, or theory of evolution?

    The ownership effect (overvaluing our own items) is called the endowment effect; the hard work making you overvalue something is exactly the same research done on cognitive dissonance theory sixty years ago by leon festinger, also known as the "effort justification" effect; and the tendency to self-enhance (believe our own products, attributes, skills are 'above-average' or desirable) has been a well-established scientific finding for the past fifty years.

    The saying science builds on the shoulder of giants apparently doesn't always apply.

  7. What disturbes me is the word "irrational" in the heading and the description. What is irrational about this? I think anyone who calls this irrational does not understand the topic.

  8. i had a question about the graph "love of legos / number of bionicles built" at t=7:43, showing that under the sisyphic condition (flat blue curve), prior love of lego had no impact on the number of bionicles built : does someone have an idea if the peoples that loved lego a lot before, loved lego much less at the end the sisyphic experiment ? and if so did it dimisned their love of lego on the long term ? – thank you

  9. Good talk, but… Carl Marx…? Dude has created more poverty and inefficiency then any other person on earth. No thanks. Watch the talk on intrinsic motivation.

  10. He is So Awesome find Word short to Describe I Love his Videos and learned a Lot about myself and others around me

  11. My ;mother didn't want me to love sewing and she used that sisyphus principle to demotivate me, although I finally finished making a dark brown skirt, totally handsewn – the stitching had to be perfect and the seams were unpicked until I achieved perfection… I hated that skirt … I was only ten years old and it took 18 moths to make.. I am 71 now perhaps I have a great inner power to draw on now from that memory…Thank you so much…:-)

  12. Like father like son, those two kids will be in Ted panel few years later. Appreciate his existence and appreciate the meanning ful life he lives.

  13. I don't want to climb a mountain and freeze unless there is big check waiting for me. I have more enjoyable things to do like soaking in hot tub. It makes sense to me.

  14. Sticks n Stones try talk to ya given payin in making therefore causing the sense that tense hence charged towards the affective disturbance come to having to do w sentense strukture being deed thau notice…
    I wont get over the test metod freak… N rigged. :') ;

  15. +Alex Z Agreed! Good talk but then completely loses me saying just because society is more advanced we can throw away sound economics. No! Specialization still applies even in a knowledge based economy, it might de-motivate people but its still more efficient; if you want to do something more rewarding plant a garden.

  16. He could have stopped talking after a couple sentences. Over 70% of people are truly just rats in a maze. Big business knows and uses mind control tactics all the time….but let's not go there! Please stop thinking freedom of speech applies to the most important facts we all need to know.

  17. People want meanings but to live is to have no meanings. People do things without meanings and that’s the meaning of life

  18. I cheated during the religion memory test since I was 2nd grade elementary, as I think is that few of bad man (like me) will less possibilities to get in self-suggestions.

  19. Wanting meaning and recognition is childish, wanting pat on the back.
    Doing everything to the level of perfection, could it be any work, develops stature. Not doing work to the level of perfection is injustice to yoourself and to people who are paying you. Do work which you really enjoy, Or simply enjoy the war of doing the work perfectly. You don't have to work like donkeys, work smart, work better, work faster if feasible and improvise.
    Don't worry about the results of your work, like recognition and meaning.
    Mountain climbers enjoy the war and perfection required, not the end results.

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