Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles I want to talk a little bit today about labor and work. When we think about how people work, the naive intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze -- that all people care about is money, and the moment we give people money, we can direct them to work one way, we can direct them to work another way. This is why we give bonuses to bankers and pay in all kinds of ways. And we really have this incredibly simplistic view of why people work and what the labor market looks like. At the same time, if you think about it, there's all kinds of strange behaviors in the world around us. Think about something like mountaineering and mountain climbing. If you read books of people who climb mountains, difficult mountains, do you think that those books are full of moments of joy and happiness? No, they are full of misery. In fact, it's all about frostbite and difficulty to walk and difficulty of breathing -- cold, challenging circumstances. And if people were just trying to be happy, the moment they would get to the top, they would say, "This was a terrible mistake. I'll never do it again." (Laughter) "Instead, let me sit on a beach somewhere drinking mojitos." But instead, people go down, and after they recover, they go up again. And if you think about mountain climbing as an example, it suggests all kinds of things. It suggests that we care about reaching the end, a peak. It suggests that we care about the fight, about the challenge. It suggests that there's all kinds of other things that motivate us to work or behave in all kinds of ways. And for me personally, I started thinking about this after a student came to visit me. This was a student that was one of my students a few years earlier. And he came one day back to campus. And he told me the following story: He said that for more than two weeks, he was working on a PowerPoint presentation. He was working in a big bank. This was in preparation for a merger and acquisition. And he was working very hard on this presentation -- graphs, tables, information. He stayed late at night every day. And the day before it was due, he sent his PowerPoint presentation to his boss, and his boss wrote him back and said, "Nice presentation, but the merger is canceled." And the guy was deeply depressed. Now at the moment when he was working, he was actually quite happy. Every night he was enjoying his work, he was staying late, he was perfecting this PowerPoint presentation. But knowing that nobody would ever watch that made him quite depressed. So I started thinking about how do we experiment with this idea of the fruits of our labor. And to start with, we created a little experiment in which we gave people Legos, and we asked them to build with Legos. And for some people, we gave them Legos and we said, "Hey, would you like to build this Bionicle for three dollars? We'll pay you three dollars for it." And people said yes, and they built with these Legos. And when they finished, we took it, we put it under the table, and we said, "Would you like to build another one, this time for $2.70?" If they said yes, we gave them another one. And when they finished, we asked them, "Do you want to build another one?" for $2.40, $2.10, and so on, until at some point people said, "No more. It's not worth it for me." This was what we called the meaningful condition. People built one Bionicle after another. After they finished every one of them, we put them under the table. And we told them that at the end of the experiment, we will take all these Bionicles, we will disassemble them, we will put them back in the boxes, and we will use it for the next participant. There was another condition. This other condition was inspired by David, my student. And this other condition we called the Sisyphic condition. And if you remember the story about Sisyphus, Sisyphus was punished by the gods to push the same rock up a hill, and when he almost got to the end, the rock would roll over, and he would have to start again. And you can think about this as the essence of doing futile work. You can imagine that if he pushed the rock on different hills, at least he would have some sense of progress. Also, if you look at prison movies, sometimes the way that the guards torture the prisoners is to get them to dig a hole and when the prisoner is finished, they ask him to fill the hole back up and then dig again. There's something about this cyclical version of doing something over and over and over that seems to be particularly demotivating. So in the second condition of this experiment, that's exactly what we did. We asked people, "Would you like to build one Bionicle for three dollars?" And if they said yes, they built it. Then we asked them, "Do you want to build another one for $2.70?" And if they said yes, we gave them a new one, and as they were building it, we took apart the one that they just finished. And when they finished that, we said, "Would you like to build another one, this time for 30 cents less?" And if they said yes, we gave them the one that they built and we broke. So this was an endless cycle of them building and us destroying in front of their eyes. Now what happens when you compare these two conditions? The first thing that happened was that people built many more Bionicles -- they built 11 versus seven -- in the meaningful condition versus the Sisyphus condition. And by the way, we should point out that this was not a big meaning. People were not curing cancer or building bridges. People were building Bionicles for a few cents. And not only that, everybody knew that the Bionicles would be destroyed quite soon. So there was not a real opportunity for big meaning. But even the small meaning made a difference. Now we had another version of this experiment. In this other version of the experiment, we didn't put people in this situation, we just described to them the situation, much as I am describing to you now, and we asked them to predict what the result would be. What happened? People predicted the right direction but not the right magnitude. People who were just given the description of the experiment said that in the meaningful condition people would probably build one more Bionicle. So people understand that meaning is important, they just don't understand the magnitude of the importance, the extent to which it's important. There was one other piece of data we looked at. If you think about it, there are some people who love Legos and some people who don't. And you would speculate that the people who love Legos will build more Legos, even for less money, because after all, they get more internal joy from it. And the people who love Legos less will build less Legos because the enjoyment that they derive from it is lower. And that's actually what we found in the meaningful condition. There was a very nice correlation between love of Lego and the amount of Legos people built. What happened in the Sisyphic condition? In that condition the correlation was zero. There was no relationship between the love of Lego and how much people built, which suggests to me that with this manipulation of breaking things in front of people's eyes, we basically crushed any joy that they could get out of this activity. We basically eliminated it. Soon after I finished running this experiment, I went to talk to a big software company in Seattle. I can't tell you who they were, but they were a big company in Seattle. And this was a group within this software company that was put in a different building. And they asked them to innovate and create the next big product for this company. And the week before I showed up, the CEO of this big software company went to that group, 200 engineers, and canceled the project. And I stood there in front of 200 of the most depressed people I've ever talked to. And I described to them some of these Lego experiments, and they said they felt like they had just been through that experiment. And I asked them, I said, "How many of you now show up to work later than you used to?" And everybody raised their hand. I said, "How many of you now go home earlier than you used to?" And everybody raised their hand. I asked them, "How many of you now add not-so-kosher things to your expense reports?" And they didn't really raise their hands, but they took me out to dinner and showed me what they could do with expense reports. And then I asked them, I said, "What could the CEO have done to make you not as depressed?" And they came up with all kinds of ideas. They said the CEO could have asked them to present to the whole company about their journey over the last two years and what they decided to do. He could have asked them to think about which aspect of their technology could fit with other parts of the organization. He could have asked them to build some prototypes, some next-generation prototypes, and seen how they would work. But the thing is that any one of those would require some effort and motivation. And I think the CEO basically did not understand the importance of meaning. If the CEO, just like our participants, thought the essence of meaning is unimportant, then he [wouldn't] care. And he would tell them, "At the moment I directed you in this way, and now that I am directing you in this way, everything will be okay." But if you understood how important meaning is, then you would figure out that it's actually important to spend some time, energy and effort in getting people to care more about what they're doing. The next experiment was slightly different. We took a sheet of paper with random letters, and we asked people to find pairs of letters that were identical next to each other. That was the task. And people did the first sheet. And then we asked them if they wanted to do the next sheet for a little bit less money and the next sheet for a little bit less money, and so on and so forth. And we had three conditions. In the first condition, people wrote their name on the sheet, found all the pairs of letters, gave it to the experimenter. The experimenter would look at it, scan it from top to bottom, say "uh huh" and put it on the pile next to them. In the second condition, people did not write their name on it. The experimenter looked at it, took the sheet of paper, did not look at it, did not scan it, and simply put it on the pile of pages. So you take a piece, you just put it on the side. And in the third condition, the experimenter got the sheet of paper and directly put it into a shredder. What happened in those three conditions? In this plot I'm showing you at what pay rate people stopped. So low numbers mean that people worked harder. They worked for much longer. In the acknowledged condition, people worked all the way down to 15 cents. At 15 cents per page, they basically stopped these efforts. In the shredder condition, it was twice as much -- 30 cents per sheet. And this is basically the result we had before. You shred people's efforts, output, you get them not to be as happy with what they're doing. But I should point out, by the way, that in the shredder condition, people could have cheated. They could have done not so good work, because they realized that people were just shredding it. So maybe the first sheet you would do good work, but then you see nobody is really testing it, so you would do more and more and more. So in fact, in the shredder condition, people could have submitted more work and gotten more money and put less effort into it. But what about the ignored condition? Would the ignored condition be more like the acknowledged or more like the shredder, or somewhere in the middle? It turns out it was almost like the shredder. Now there's good news and bad news here. The bad news is that ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes. Ignoring gets you a whole way out there. The good news is that by simply looking at something that somebody has done, scanning it and saying "uh huh," that seems to be quite sufficient to dramatically improve people's motivations.