Business TEDx

What motivates us at work? 7 fascinating studies that give insights

Posted by: Jessica Gross

Dan-Ariely“When we think about how people work, the naïve intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze,” says behavioral economist Dan Ariely in today’s talk, given at TEDxRiodelaPlata. “We really have this incredibly simplistic view of why people work and what the labor market looks like.”

Dan Ariely: What makes us feel good about our work?Dan Ariely: What makes us feel good about our work?When you look carefully at the way people work, he says, you find out there’s a lot more at play—and a lot more at stake—than money. In his talk, Ariely provides evidence that we are also driven by meaningful work, by others’ acknowledgement and by the amount of effort we’ve put in: the harder the task is, the prouder we are.

During the Industrial Revolution, Ariely points out, Adam Smith’s efficiency-oriented, assembly-line approach made sense. But it doesn’t work as well in today’s knowledge economy. Instead, Ariely upholds Karl Marx’s concept that we care much more about a product if we’ve participated from start to finish rather than producing a single part over and over. In other words, in the knowledge economy, efficiency is no longer more important than meaning.

“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, etc.,” Ariely explains.

To hear more on Ariely’s thoughts about what makes people more productive – and happier – at work, watch this fascinating talk. Below, a look at some of Ariely’s studies, as well as a few from other researchers, with interesting implications for what makes us feel good about our work.

  1. Seeing the fruits of our labor may make us more productive
    The Study: In a study conducted at Harvard University, Ariely asked participants to build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. In both conditions, participants were paid decreasing amounts for each subsequent Bionicle: $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next one, and so on. But while one group’s creations were stored under the table, to be disassembled at the end of the experiment, the other group’s Bionicles were disassembled as soon as they’d been built. “This was an endless cycle of them building and we destroying in front of their eyes,” Ariely says.
    The Results: The first group made 11 Bionicles, on average, while the second group made only seven before they quit.
    The Upshot: Even though there wasn’t huge meaning at stake, and even though the first group knew their work would be destroyed at the end of the experiment, seeing the results of their labor for even a short time was enough to dramatically improve performance.
  2. The less appreciated we feel our work is, the more money we want to do it
    The Study: Ariely gave study participants — students at MIT — a piece of paper filled with random letters, and asked them to find pairs of identical letters. Each round, they were offered less money than the previous round. People in the first group wrote their names on their sheets and handed them to the experimenter, who looked it over and said “Uh huh” before putting it in a pile. People in the second group didn’t write down their names, and the experimenter put their sheets in a pile without looking at them. People in the third group had their work shredded immediately upon completion.
    The Results: People whose work was shredded needed twice as much money as those whose work was acknowledged in order to keep doing the task. People in the second group, whose work was saved but ignored, needed almost as much money as people whose work was shredded.
    The Upshot: “Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes,” Ariely says. “The good news is that adding motivation doesn’t seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don’t think about it carefully, we might overdo it.”
  3. The harder a project is, the prouder we feel of it
    The Study: In another study, Ariely gave origami novices paper and instructions to build a (pretty ugly) form. Those who did the origami project, as well as bystanders, were asked at the end how much they’d pay for the product. In a second trial, Ariely hid the instructions from some participants, resulting in a harder process — and an uglier product.
    The Results: In the first experiment, the builders paid five times as much as those who just evaluated the product. In the second experiment, the lack of instructions exaggerated this difference: builders valued the ugly-but-difficult products even more highly than the easier, prettier ones, while observers valued them even less.
    The Upshot: Our valuation of our own work is directly tied to the effort we’ve expended. (Plus, we erroneously think that other people will ascribe the same value to our own work as we do.)
  4. Knowing that our work helps others may increase our unconscious motivation
    The Study: As described in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, psychologist Adam Grant led a study at a University of Michigan fundraising call center in which  student who had benefited from the center’s scholarship fundraising efforts spoke to the callers for 10 minutes.
    The Results: A month later, the callers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone than before, and revenues had increased by 171 percent, according to the Times. But the callers denied the scholarship students’ visit had impacted them.
    The Upshot: “It was almost as if the good feelings had bypassed the callers’ conscious cognitive processes and gone straight to a more subconscious source of motivation,” the Times reports. “They were more driven to succeed, even if they could not pinpoint the trigger for that drive.”
  5. The promise of helping others makes us more likely to follow rules
    The Study: Grant ran another study (also described in the Times profile) in which he put up signs at a hospital’s hand-washing stations, reading either “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases” or “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.”
    The Results: Doctors and nurses used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer in the stations with signs that mentioned patients.
    The Upshot: Helping others through what’s called “prosocial behavior” motivates us.
  6. Positive reinforcement about our abilities may increase performance
    The Study: Undergraduates at Harvard University gave speeches and did mock interviews with experimenters who were either nodding and smiling or shaking their heads, furrowing their eyebrows, and crossing their arms.
    The Results: The participants in the first group later answered a series of numerical questions more accurately than those in the second group.
    The Upshot: Stressful situations can be manageable—it all depends on how we feel. We find ourselves in a “challenge state” when we think we can handle the task (as the first group did); when we’re in a “threat state,” on the other hand, the difficulty of the task is overwhelming, and we become discouraged. We’re more motivated and perform better in a challenge state, when we have confidence in our abilities.
  7. Images that trigger positive emotions may actually help us focus
    The Study: Researchers at Hiroshima University had university students perform a dexterity task before and after looking at pictures of either baby or adult animals.
    The Results: Performance improved in both cases, but more so (10 percent improvement!) when participants looked at the cute pictures of puppies and kittens.
    The Upshot: The researchers suggest that “the cuteness-triggered positive emotion” helps us narrow our focus, upping our performance on a task that requires close attention. Yes, this study may just validate your baby panda obsession.

What have you noticed makes you work harder – and better?

Comments (127)

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  • commented on Apr 13 2013

    Great points! Writing down my agenda and looking at them when my mind starts to wander helps me focus back on my work.

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  • Michael McGuire commented on Apr 11 2013

    Sorry. Technical difficulties. To finish that last point a different way…

    It almost seems as if the research was measuring human behavior more so than motivation. In the example you used (#3) the response to the origami project was interesting but I’m not sure we can draw a correlation to business. I think it happens at times but I wouldn’t feel comfortable making the claim that the harder we make the process the more engaged people will become and will therefore also have a greater sense of value and accomplishment. Yes, it’s fun to figure things out but after awhile that approach could lead to mental exhaustion and disengagement. To tie that to motivation may be a stretch. If my supervisor purposely omitted information, in an effort to make me think through things because he/she felt I’d garnish a greater sense of value and accomplishment, I’m not sure it would motivate me.

    • Rohit Jain commented on Mar 20 2014

      These are very good points which every company should evaluate and implement. Motivation and the evaluation of work a individual is doing however big or small is ensures the success of an organization.

      Pin Code

  • Michael McGuire commented on Apr 11 2013


    You make a great case, and that isn’t an attempt to patronize.

    #1 I agree that, while I still enjoy visiting TED Talks, the bar has been lowered over the years. I used to recommend that my Public Speaking students watch and listen to TED talks so they could see and hear what it takes to deliver an effective presentation. Now I have to be much more selective and choose the speakers for them because the quality has slipped a bit.

    #2 When you wrote “how can YOU possibly tell ME what MY personal motivations are” I’m not sure that was the intent – it may have just been worded poorly. Research is what it is – generalizations made based on information from what we hope is a representative sample. Researchers should never give the impression that the claims based on the research in some way apply to all of us. I would dare to say we all have different motivations.

    Personally, I need to know more about the research before I can determine validity. If the researchers asked

  • lou suSi commented on Apr 11 2013

    there seems to be a neverending proliferation of TEDxN going on lately, which i’m not so sure is a good thing

    the more ubiquitously the TED brand gets applied across the gamut of 10 to 20 minute franchised talks, the more diluted the overarching TED brand becomes for me

    i liken it to what happened with REM — now, i was never a HUGE fan of REM to begin with, but i kind of enjoyed the sound of the songs preceding The One I Love and The End of the World as I Know It — songs like Radio Free Europe and Fall On Me broil with an interesting timbrally-layered texture, and they were enjoyable to hear on WFNX way back when and all — i mean, it never made me run out to by a record album of their music or anything, but it wasn’t as downright annoying as music you might hear on one of the poppier radio stations of the time

    then, i don’t know the name of the album, but the latest release from REM included the first single Losing My Religion, right? and following that kind of ‘flat despite the mandolin trick’ song from REM came the most horrifically Stiped song to-date, Stand — what a lame-ass song, ya know? and i personally LOVE toy piano and all, but that song is just out and out ridiculous and stupid in every sense of the word — and, at that point in my aural history as a music listener i realized REM just totally changed up my perception of their entire oeuvre of music — all of their previous songs, including Losing My Religion, started to feel a LOT lamer due to Stand

    i guess its sort of the same thing that can happen with the mystique of foreign films, right? i’ve always wondered this about foreign films: how do they all seem SO much deeper than American Hollywood movies? don’t they seem a LOT more philosophical and almost readerly by comparison? well, it might partially be due to the fact that, as English-speaking viewers watching a foreign, subtitled film, we actually do need to read the translation along the way, so maybe that makes it feel a whole lot deeper by default at the onset — but then, after you’ve seen a lot of foreign films and you start to see some more of the common, shallower Hollywood-style pop movies from Europe and other more worldly nations, you start wondering if the deeper foreign films you’ve seen were actually as deep as you remember them being when you originally saw them — maybe they’re just as stupid as the Italian flick you’re watching right now, but they just SEEMED so much deeper just due to the fact that they were foreign, and thereby more culturally important, to begin with

    isn’t that strange?

    why are American movies called movies and foreign films called films?

    and if it rains during the practice, why bother doing the actual goddam rain dance in the first place? why not just call practice?

    anyhow, so i’m getting the sense that this TED Talk is starting to dilute the overall TED brand for me now, which is really too bad … i really used to look forward to the intellectual depth provided by previous talks that seemed so much more well-thought out and researched prior to presentation

    lately i’m seeing a lot of talk — too much talk, actually — about creative people and what motivates them … i keep seeing this idea that money isn’t as important to creative people, that we’re into this work thing for some deeper sense of satisfaction through doing really deep and meaningful work, even if we’re getting less money for it

    the claim here is that there’s ‘a lot more at play — and a lot more at stake — than money’

    well, i hate to break it to you all, but you gotta pay us — and you better pay us well as creatives, as designers, as scientists and educators and the more passionate class of neo-serfs out here banging sticks for you — and you wanna know why? well, ultimately, in this capitalist economy where money just simply IS the reason behind absolutely everything, well, we’re all gonna go all Ayn Rand on ya — that’s all there is to it — and i know as much as you do, too, as much as you hate to admit it, WE come up with the really innovative, cool new ideas, and if we’re given the drippy beginning dregs of an ‘almost idea’ from the likes of a non-creative that doesn’t understand the more emotional and mysterious aspects of the process, WE’RE the ones that understand how to take that shit and make it into something far more humanly valuable than you ever would


    i hate to break this part to you, too, but the world has changed { thank you Sir Colin Owens } — yes, the world has changed significantly, and we ALL have profoundly less hierarchical access to the tools of ANY profession

    the thing is — nothing truly amazing, cool and innovative comes out of simply having access to the mere tools — any one of us can download the latest trial of Adobe Creative Suite 2000 and X and open a document and move things around or change a color or 2 — but not everyone knows the powers of the subconscious side of these processes we call Design — and not everyone knows how to harness and control and channel these powers at the appropriate times in the flow of a project while also understanding when to let loose the reigns just enough to let them horses run a little wild for a while — a good creative deals with this stuff constantly and its a force inside all that we develop and nurture or leave to die on the side of the road with each and every day of our living, breathing lives

    how long have you been practicing the dark craft of creativity? who the Hell are YOU?

    some of these studies just don’t make any sense at all — for instance, the results of #3 — ‘Our valuation of our own work is directly tied to the effort we’ve expended’ — fantastic point to discover, but just because you made some rotten origami project and think its the cat’s ass and all doesn’t mean i’ll even consider paying you a dead dime for it — and in our economy, as much as we might ‘value’ our own work differently than others that didn’t go through the process of actually making it, the results of our efforts might actually have NO value at ALL to other people { aka customers, consumers, clients } — and, the company i work for doesn’t pay me directly based upon how valuable I perceive the work I do, right? and then if I felt my end product was far more valuable than I was being paid for it, wouldn’t I then want to be paid using some different compensation structure moving forward

    I don’t know, I get the sociopsychological points the TED Talker’s trying to make here, I just think that monetary compensation, personal motivation and sociology need some common ground for any of this to be even reasonably Scientific and objective

    and then, ultimately, how can YOU possibly tell ME what MY personal motivations are through these large and rather random academic-based studies that are a fairly abstracted from any real sense of economic and sociological reality?

    c’mon, please

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  • commented on Apr 11 2013

    Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection and commented:
    “… During the Industrial Revolution, Ariely points out, Adam Smith’s efficiency-oriented, assembly-line approach made sense. But it doesn’t work as well in today’s knowledge economy. Instead, Ariely upholds Karl Marx’s concept that we care much more about a product if we’ve participated from start to finish rather than producing a single part over and over. In other words, in the knowledge economy, efficiency is no longer more important than meaning. …”

  • commented on Apr 10 2013

    Reblogged this on Engage Coaching.

  • David Mullin commented on Apr 10 2013

    “When we think about how people work, the naïve intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze” (Ariely). Then, he goes on to uphold Marx, whose Communist Manifesto seeks to abolish “eternal truths, all religion, and all morality.” What Ariely misses- based on his own naive intuition -is that the only escape from cyclicity is by transmutation into spirality. FYI: the human being moves upward. Ironically, he- like Marx -becomes the very rat on the wheel by attempting to strip spirit from the equation; always going, but getting nowhere. What a curiosity? Consider thinking out of Marx’s materialistic place for a human being.

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  • Ken Ferry commented on Apr 10 2013

    Intolerable treatment by the window seat dwellers or their HR (Human Rancor?) department trumps all.

  • commented on Apr 10 2013

    Reblogged this on Notes on Indian Law and commented:
    Very interesting and not related to this blog’s subject matter, I felt it was worth sharing. Enjoy!

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  • Alex Massar commented on Apr 10 2013

    Alright here it is, number one motivator for doing work of some sort… of any sort:

    Situation: something needs to get done, doesn’t really matter what it is, but in the end something needs to either be created, or new ideas need to be established for resolutions.

    Solution: give me simple parameters of what the issue is that needs to be solved, and restrictions that are actually less than that of what is truly available… (i.e. if we only have 100$, tell me we have 75$… or if we only have 5 pieces of wood tell me we have 3)

    With these basic restrictions, allow me to do whatever I can think of to reach a reasonable conclusion… – simple restriction rules for restriction-less thinking –

    I promise, that no matter what the problem is, I will come up with some sort of solutions that make the most of the available resources… but then there is this epic moment in the equation: the enlightening of the fact that there are in fact more resources than were originally announced… adding new variables to the open ending thinking: (i.e. what could we do now that there are 5 pieces of wood?)

    With this in the new frame of thought, I will erupt with many more innovations over what is possible, and feel as if I am truly accomplishing more…. So I guess long story short:

    1. Basic rules, that can be freely broken in theory
    2. Limitless potential in brainstorming
    3. Time Limit (not mentioned above, but is a good incentive)
    4. Expansion of limitations
    5. Amazing results

    • commented on Apr 11 2013

      Thumbs up!

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