Is Money All We Care About?

Özge Üstündağ

Intuitively, money might seem like the ultimate carrot at the end of the stick however, science tells us otherwise.

A professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, Dan Ariely shares the following insight about motivation during one of his TED Talks: “When we think about how people work, the naive intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze.” In other words, the misconception regarding money and motivation is that when we give people money for their work, we can control them in any way we can, similar to how rats are directed and controlled in a maze.

In the upcoming book, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, Dan Ariely explores the dynamics that circle around people’s motivations to work. In one of the studies described in the book, Ariely set up a delicious experiment to test whether money was all people cared about.

The experiment was carried out at a technology company in Israel where workers assembled computer chips. For the study, the company workers were divided into four groups with each one involving a distinct motivator.

The participants in the first group were promised pizza - through an email message - if they managed to reach the company’s goals for the day. The second group were to receive a cash bonus (about 30$) while the third got complimented on by the boss. The fourth and the final group - the control group - neither received a voucher for pizza nor a cash bonus.

The following week

After day one, productivity of the pizza group increased by 6.7 percent compared to the control group. The group that received compliments followed closely with a 6.6 percent increase in productivity when compared with the group that did not have any extraneous motivators.

What about the group that received a cash bonus? Their level of productivity was the worst of all of the three conditions. Workers who received cash as a source of motivation increased productivity by only 4.9 percent compared to the control condition.

What the researchers found on the second day of the week was even more interesting. Productivity of workers in the cash condition dropped even lower, to 13.2 percent. It appeared that no incentive was better than cash bonus to motivate workers to reach the daily company goals.

Even though the productivity levels in the pizza and compliment conditions (which was the best motivator at the end of the week) approached to those in the control group, they were still higher than the cash bonus condition by the end of the week. In sum, the company experienced a 6.5 percent drop in productivity because of the cash bonus given to workers.

Money is not the only motivator

In essence, as Ariely’s research – among others – show, people do not necessarily work for the money. There is apparently something more, perhaps something that creates meaning around the tasks that people accomplish that keeps them engaged at work.

So before you ask about how much money you will get paid during your next job interview, ask yourself this question:

What do I find meaningful about that job?



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