Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

You’re Not A Horse

The science on what motivates us is surprising. Even a little freaky. 

Most people believe that the best way to motivate is to reward positive good behaviour and to punish bad behaviour.

But do incentives really increase performance?

MIT conducted a set of experiments to put that hypothesis to the test.

A group of students were invited into an MIT classroom and given a set of challenges, ranging from memorising strings of digits, solving word puzzles and throwing balls through hoops.

To increase performance, the students got three levels of rewards depending on their results. A small, medium or large bag of cash.

Which is similar to how salesmen are paid. The more sales you make, the higher your pay.

The results of the experiment?

The bonuses increased performance as long as the task only involved mechanical skill. But once the task called for basic cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.

That’s odd. And potentially harmful.

After all, the economy of the world relies on the unshakable fact that larger prizes lead to better results. 

So is it possible that the experimenters goofed? Unlikely. The people who ran the experiment were the leading experts in the field of economics.

More likely is that the average student at MIT isn’t sufficiently motivated by the cash prize.

Which is why the experiment was replicated in rural India, where the highest money prize was equal to two months salary.

The result?

The same as at MIT: higher incentives led to worse performance.

Which if you were a psychologist, is a conclusion that wouldn’t surprise you. Because the carrot and stick system has been proven harmful to creative tasks in psychology hundreds of times before.

So how do you motivate people?

For starters, you pay people large enough salaries to take the issue of money off the table. Once employees are satisfied with their income, the attention shifts to the task.

And to increase performance of the task, the employer needs to help his staff tick three boxes:

Autonomy. Mastery. And purpose.

People desire to solve creative problems. People desire to get better. And people desire to make a contribution to the world.

How else can you explain the success of Wikipedia. Which is essentially a group of highly skilled people who have jobs, and spend dozens of hours a week on highly demanding tasks for strangers, without asking money.

The contributors of Wikipedia are doing work without an economic incentive, because money doesn’t motivate beyond a certain threshold.

Self direction motivates. Learning motivates. Meaning motivates.

Does your job offer you the three strongest incentives for increased performance?

If not, you’re missing out on satisfaction. 

P.S. This is simply a rewrite of Daniel Pink’s stellar talk at the RSA. Be sure to check it out for a far better retelling on the power of motivation.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach