By: Dan Ariely



We use motivation in all aspects of our lives. We motivate our significant others, our friends, our employees, our bosses, our family, and our waitresses. Motivation is a complex psychology.

In his book, Dan Ariely examines the true nature of motivation and what really motivates us to do what we do.sKnowing what drives others and us is an essential step toward enhancing the joy – and minimizing the confusion – in our lives. This is what he has to say.


Ariely has conducted a few experiments to examine the effects of demotivation.

In the first study, he asked participants to build some Lego Bionicles. The participants were offered $2 for each Bionicle they built, and when they were finished they were asked if they would like to build another one for eleven cents less ($1.89 then $1.78, etc). This pattern repeated until they did not want to continue.

The participants were divided into two groups – one group was told that at the end of the experiment, the Bionicles would be taken apart and used again for the next group. The second group’s Bionicles were destroyed immediately upon completion right in front of the builders’ eyes.

The first group was called the “meaningful” condition, because they felt like they completed their work satisfactorily. The second group was called the “Sisyphic” condition, named after the Greek Sisyphus who was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up and down a hill for eternity.

Those in the second group built, on average, four fewer than those in the “meaningful” condition. This suggests that finding some sort of meaning in work will make you work longer for less pay.

Ariely ran a similar study, asking people to find pairs of identical letters on a sheet of paper. This time, participants were split into three groups. One group got acknowledged when they turned in their completed piece of paper, one group didn’t get acknowledged, and the third group’s paper got shredded on the spot.

Each participant was given a similar offer to the Lego experiment – an initial 55 cents for the first sheet and then each additional sheet for 5 cents less.

Unsurprisingly, the “acknowledged” group worked for much longer. They stopped when the pay rate fell to about 15 cents. In contrast, the “shredded” group stopped around 29 cents. The “ignored” condition stopped working when the pay was about 27.5 cents per page.

So Ariely and his team concluded that destroying someone’s work will certainly demotivate him or her, but ignoring it will almost have the same effect. When we get acknowledged for our work, we are willing to work harder and for less pay.

In a third experiment, Ariely described the two conditions of the first experiment – “Sisyphic” and “meaningful” - to participants. He then asked them to imagine they were consultants for a company that owned a Bionicle assembly facility.

He asked them to predict how much the number of Bionicles assembled would change if their client switched from their current “Sisyphic” assembly method to the “meaningful” one. Participants guessed that the switch would only result in one additional Bionicle, and as a result, they did not recommend to the CEO to switch.

In real life, the switch would lead to an increase of about four Bionicles. The participants predicted the effect would be much smaller than it actually was. They underestimated the power of meaning, which is important, because many CEOs do not have data like this, and instead rely on their predictions like the participants.

To avoid accidentally demotivating your employees, look for places where, by not thinking carefully about incentives, you unintentionally damage motivation and productivity. When companies communicate to their employees that they are valued only for their productivity, motivation will certainly decrease.

There are many ways to reinforce feelings of meaning and connection to employees. One way is to treat them as unique individuals that are appreciated for their creativity and intelligence. Focus on making them find meaning and connection in their work.

Our Own Creations

Effort and ownership contribute directly to motivation. When we work harder and spend more time and effort on a project, we feel a greater sense of ownership.

This is evident in IKEA furniture that buyers build themselves. The effort that goes into building the furniture often results in a sense of satisfaction, and people tend to like that piece of furniture more than other furniture.

One experiment tested this. Participants were asked to make some origami creations in exchange for an hourly wage. After they were finished, the experimenters offered to “buy it back” for a price. This group was contrasted with a second group that did not build the origami themselves, but still had the offer to buy it.

Those that built it were willing to pay five times more for their handmade creation than the observers. This shows that the more effort people put in, the more they seem to care about their creations.

Furthermore, when asked how much they thought other people would be willing to pay for their origami, they vastly overestimated. This shows that we have a large bias towards the things we create.

We become more invested as we pour effort into different activities, and with it experience a greater love for what we have created.

Meaningful engagement, and our under-apprecation for its role in our lives, applies to many other aspects of our lives – which is why we are willing to pay someone to build our furniture for us. What we don’t realise is that we’re trading an annoying task for a deep appreciation and connection with the outcome.

Money, money, money

Many people wonder about the kinds of external rewards that best motivate people. Because motivation is a part of nearly everything we do, it is impossible to come up with one simple set of motivational rules. The trick that motivates an army squad is different than the trick that motivates a toddler to eat more vegetables.

Because motivation is so complex, there isn’t one experiment that can answer the question of what causes it. However, many experiments can help point us in the right direction.

In one experiment, professors studied the effectiveness of large bonuses. What they found was that when the bonus was very large, performance actually decreased. This likely stemmed from the stress and fear of possibly not getting the bonus. However, since it was in a controlled lab setting, it wasn’t necessarily reliable.

Later, Ariely ran a real-life version of the experiment at Intel in Israel. They gave the employees a goal to complete by the end of the work week and set up four different conditions for the workers that created computer chips.

The first was a note that offered a monetary bonus if the goal was reached. The second was a note that promised a pizza voucher if the goal was reach. The third was a promise of a text message from their boss telling them “well done!” if they reached the goal. And the control group received no note and no bonus.

All three rewards yielded more motivation than the control group. The pizza voucher boosted productivity by 6.7 percent, and the cash motivated the employees the least, with 4.9 percent.

However, on the second day of the work cycle, those in the money condition performed 13.2 percent worse than those in the control condition. Overall for the week, they had a 6.5 percent drop performance compared to no incentive at all.

The pizza conditions had similar patterns, although the compliment group increased engagement even on days when there was no bonus. The results suggest that there is a lot more to work than simply an opportunity to exchange labor for money.

The more a company can offer employees opportunities for meaning and connection, the harder the employees will work and the more loyal they will be.

If you can communicate a sense of long-term commitment, if will be easier for employees to invest their time and energy in their work. This can be done with investment in employees’ education, health benefits that clearly communicate a desire for a healthy future, investments in their personal growth, investments in their well being, and provisions of a path for promotion and development within the company.

Trust and goodwill are important and inherent parts of human motivation. Unfortunately, paying people directly for their performance kills this. For example, if a loved one cooks you a beautiful and delicious meal because they love you, your insistence on paying them for their efforts will upset them and devalue the offer of the meal.

Goodwill is important, but it is also fragile. Be careful not to destroy it.


We all feel a craving for some sort of afterlife – that we will be remembered after we’re gone, even if the only reminder is a symbolic grave marker.

We are motivated to leave some sort of legacy in this world. If you knew that everything you wrote, created, or affected would simply disappear without a trace once you died, would it change the way you live? The answer is likely yes, because our affect on the world is a large motivator of the way we act.

We can use funerals to examine the drive for literal or symbolic immorality, and the kinds of motivations that influence us more generally, including caring about others, helping, making amends, and finding meaning.

We are driven by our prospect of our own mortality, and we yearn to be remembered. Our motivation to leave a legacy is powerful, and it provides us a window into the complexity and multiplicity of what motivates us – although we are just starting to uncover, appreciate, and understand it.

The Answer to the Ultimate Question

The question of motivation is such a general and large question that it encompasses almost every aspect of human endeavour and drive. Because it is so huge, it is impossible to ever answer.

But we have clues. It turns out that money isn’t the simple, great motivator many of us believe it to be. In fact, it’s often a disincentive. We also learned that, we all sometimes demotivate people when we ignore, criticise, disregard, or destroy their work.

We also learned that we’re driven by all kinds of intangible, emotional forces: the need to be recognised and to feel ownership, to feel a sense of accomplishment, to find the security of a long-term commitment and a sense of shared purpose.

To motivate ourselves and others successfully, we must provide a sense of connection and meaning. When it comes to human motivation, we can have perpetual energy as long as we invest in a sense of connection, meaning, ownership, and long-term thinking.