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What makes us feel good about work?

What motivates you to work? Contrary to popular belief, this is not only money. But it is not only pleasure. It seems that most of us are thriving, constantly moving forward and feeling purposeful. The behavioral economist Dan Ariely presents two instructive experiments that show our unexpected and nuanced attitudes toward meaning in our work.

Transcription of Dan Ariely’s performance at the TED venue:
Today I want to talk a little about work and workers. When we think about how people work, we imagine people as rats in a maze. Money is the only thing people care about, and when we pay people, we can order them to work on this or that. For this reason, we pay bonuses to bankers and pay in various ways. In fact, we unusually simplify the view of why people work and what the labor market looks like.

At the same time, if you think about it, there are many types of strange behavior in the world. Think, for example, of climbing to the top of a mountain. If you read books about people doing difficult ascents, did you think about how full they are of moments of joy and happiness? No, they are full of misery. In fact, they are about frostbite, how difficult it is to walk, how difficult it is to breathe – cold, difficult circumstances. And if people just tried to be happy when they reached the top, they would say: “It was a terrible mistake. I won’t do this anymore. ” (Laughter) “It’s better to fall apart somewhere on the beach and drink mojito.” But instead, people descend, and after recovery, they again go to the mountains. And if you take the example of climbing, it inspires many thoughts. He tells you that you care how to get to the end, to the top. He tells you that you care about the struggle, you think about the difficulties. He suggests that there are a large number of things that motivate us to work, or to behave in this way.

As for me personally, I started thinking about it after a student came to me. This was a student who studied with me a few years earlier. One day he returned to campus, and told me the following story. He has been working on one PowerPoint presentation for more than two weeks. He worked at a large bank. It was a presentation on mergers and acquisitions. He seriously worked on this presentation – graphs, tables, information. He lingered until late every day. The day before the appointed time, he sent a PowerPoint presentation to his boss, and he answered him: “A good presentation, but the merger will not take place.” The guy was deeply depressed. At work, he was truly happy. Every evening he enjoyed his work, stayed up late, finishing the presentation to perfection. But the realization that no one would ever see what he did made him very upset.

And I began to think about how to experiment with this idea of ​​labor results. To begin with, we organized a small experiment in which we gave people Lego, and asked them to build. We gave the designer one and said: “Hey, would you like to build this Bionicle? We will pay you $ 3 for it. ” And they agreed and built it from the constructor. And when they finished, we took it, put it under the table, and said: “Would you like to build another one for $ 2.70?” If they agree, we will give one more. And when they finished, we asked them: “Do you want to build another one for $ 2.40?”, Then another one for $ 2.10 and so on, until people answered: “No more, it’s not worth it.” This is what we call a meaningful condition. People built one Bionicle after another. After they finished building, we put them under the table. We told them that at the end of the experiment, we will analyze all the Bionicles they collected, put them back in the boxes, and use them for the next participants.

There was another condition. This condition was the inspiration of David, my student. We called this condition the Sisyphus condition. And if you remember the story of Sisyphus, then Sisyphus was punished by the gods – he pushed a stone uphill. And at the very end, the stone rolled down, and he had to start all over again. We call it useless work. You can imagine that if he pushed a stone to different hills, then at least he would get a certain sense of progress. If you watch prison films, sometimes in this way the guards torment the prisoners: they force them to dig holes, and when they are dug up, they force them to dig the holes back and dig them out again. There is something about these cyclical versions of repetition again, again and again, which seems especially demotivating. The second condition of the experiment did just that. We asked people to build a Bionicle for $ 3. And if they agreed, they built. Then we asked them “Build another for $ 2.70?” And if they agreed, we gave them another, and while they were building it, we would disassemble the one that they had just finished. When they finished it, we asked: “Do you want to build another one, this time 30 cents cheaper?”

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