What motivates us to work hard


<— Nope, that’s not the secret.

I was sent this video by a colleague in the environmental field, after a long talk about a particularly difficult project I’m on and what keeps me engaged in it. I recommend you watch it – if only for fun! The video features an artist illustrating the results of a series of scientific studies, and just watching that is an education in entertaining and engaging communication.

There are a number of researchers at MIT, Caltech, and a variety of other institutions who study economics, social behavior, game theory and related disciplines using college students and various incentives, typically, but not always, small amounts of money. In this study, people were promised increasing amounts of money based on their performance at a variety of types of tasks. It turned out that money was not a motivator for most tasks, except for those that were purely rote or mechanical in nature. Once even the smallest amount of thinking was involved, other motivators become far more important.

You might think that this study was skewed by involving a bunch of idealistic grad students with possibly not that much need for money. So they tried it again, in rural India. And got the same results. A bunch of other studies corroborate the findings. So what are the three top motivators that prompt people to do a good or even outstanding job? You’ll have to watch the video to see (it’s worth it). All I can say is, it works for me.

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2 thoughts on “What motivates us to work hard

  1. Brad Shanrock-Solberg says:

    While I believe studies that indicate money isn’t the primary motivator for most tasks, there is an important boundary condition to consider, which has also been studied but I don’t have the links to references at the moment.

    Essentially, below a certain income level, money does matter and is highly motivating. There is, however, “enough” money, which tends to mean that your basic needs for yourself and family are met (a place to live, sufficient transportation, health care, emergency reserve and whatever else the person feels is vital in their culture). The exact value varies from person to person, culture to culture. A few people remain motivated by money itself regardless of its intrinsic value, but they’re relatively rare.

    Past that point, extra money is just gravy. It’s nice, it lowers anxiety about really big emergencies and allows a few luxuries but it no longer has the driving force for most people that it does when your kid needs medicine you can’t afford and the rent is due and your car needs to be jumped every morning to get you to work.

    I’ve been on both sides of the “enough money” equation and, well, lets just say at the lower end of my income scale we all looked forward to “getting” to work our “6 day”, ie a shift situation where every few weeks we’d have to work an extra day – and get paid time and a half. That extra money made such a difference in our lives that losing a day and often working a strange shift just didn’t matter.

    When I was working a better job, but still underpaid, every % on the performance review was a big deal, every little bonus or profit sharing made a tangible difference in my life.

    I hit a point though, about 5 years into my first steady job where suddenly I had “enough”. The next tier of income up was enough to buy a house and get married on our own dime – motivating but not in the same way as being unable to pay for an emergency room visit. When my wife stopped being able to work, salary became pretty important until we worked out lifestyle changes that let us pay the mortgage etc.

    These days the next tier would be suddenly being able to retire. Which isn’t a level of money any sane employer would pay me, as I would then stop working :). I’m at a point where working on something interesting matters far more than whether I get a 1% or 3% raise, or even a fairly sizable bonus. I can’t get away from working a good chunk of my life, I can’t afford to retire yet, so my work might as well be something I see as worth doing. One thing I will look very hard at when our mortgage is paid off and (presumably) heath care reform is fully implemented is looking at other types of jobs that don’t command nearly the same salary but might make my next 10-20 years of work more enjoyable. A kind of semi-retirement in a way. But I might decide to stick with what I’m doing, to fully retire sooner.

    • I agree with you – it’s very interesting to look at the levels of motivation that money provides. There is a very brief mention in the studies of that level below which money does count – However, I don’t think any of the studies were designed to replicate that level. Though it is interesting that even in rural India, where you would expect many people to be very poor, the same results were found. Perhaps that level of poverty does not seem so unusual there when almost everyone is at the same level and people know how to survive, I don’t know.

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