Day 622: What Kind of Motivation is Effective?

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, take a look at this. This is called the candle problem. Some of you might have seen this before. It's created in 1945 by a psychologist named Karl Duncker. Karl Duncker created this experiment that is used in a whole variety of experiments in behavioral science. And here's how it works. Suppose I'm the experimenter. I bring you into a room. I give you a candle, some thumbtacks and some matches. And I say to you, "Your job is to attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn't drip onto the table." Now what would you do? 
Now many people begin trying to thumbtack the candle to the wall. Doesn't work. Somebody, some people -- and I saw somebody kind of make the motion over here -- some people have a great idea where they light the match, melt the side of the candle, try to adhere it to the wall. It's an awesome idea. Doesn't work. And eventually, after five or 10 minutes, most people figure out the solution, which you can see here. The key is to overcome what's called functional fixedness. You look at that box and you see it only as a receptacle for the tacks. But it can also have this other function, as a platform for the candle. The candle problem.  
Now I want to tell you about an experiment using the candle problem, done by a scientist named Sam Glucksberg, who is now at Princeton University in the U.S. This shows the power of incentives. Here's what he did. He gathered his participants. And he said, "I'm going to time you. How quickly you can solve this problem?" To one group he said, "I'm going to time you to establish norms, averages for how long it typically takes someone to solve this sort of problem." 
To the second group he offered rewards. He said, "If you're in the top 25 percent of the fastest times, you get five dollars. If you're the fastest of everyone we're testing here today, you get 20 dollars." Now this is several years ago. Adjusted for inflation, it's a decent sum of money for a few minutes of work. It's a nice motivator. 
Question: How much faster did this group solve the problem? Answer: It took them, on average, three and a half minutes longer. Three and a half minutes longer. Now this makes no sense right? I mean, I'm an American. I believe in free markets. That's not how it's supposed to work. Right? (Laughter) If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show. Incentivize them. That's how business works. But that's not happening here. You've got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity. 
And what's interesting about this experiment is that it's not an aberration. This has been replicated over and over and over again, for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators -- if you do this, then you get that -- work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don't work or, often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored. 
I want to talk today only about autonomy. In the 20th century, we came up with this idea of management. Management did not emanate from nature. Management is like -- it's not a tree, it's a television set. Okay? Somebody invented it. And it doesn't mean it's going to work forever. Management is great. Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self-direction works better.  
Let me give you some examples of some kind of radical notions of self-direction. What this means -- you don't see a lot of it, but you see the first stirrings of something really interesting going on, because what it means is paying people adequately and fairly, absolutely -- getting the issue of money off the table, and then giving people lots of autonomy. Let me give you some examples. - Daniel Pink

This is a very important point, not only in our economy but also in our day-to-day lives. The concept of trying to motivate someone (even yourself) with the reward / punishment system is not as effective as we believe it to be. This can be applied in parenting, schooling, in the workplace and even in how you choose to spend your free time.

We function much better when we understand clearly why something must be done, when we are given the opportunity to challenge our own creativity and when we have a strong will to see something through. These things are all things that we must essentially develop within ourselves and apply to all areas of our lives, not just to those few areas of interest or need. Changing this one aspect within ourselves will have a profound effect in our personal lives, but that effect will also ripple out into the world and people around us.

So many of us, in so many ways, are stuck in a 'functional fixedness' - our vision too narrow to consider solutions outside the box. This functional fixedness does not only apply in scientific/psychological experiments - it seems to exist in almost every aspect of our lives. The economy is a pretty big example - we do not consider using the economic system and tools in any other way except for the way in which we are doing it (we believe that this way is the 'right' way and that there is no possible better solution). I am sure that there are thousands of smaller examples, you usually only come across them when you are challenged to use a certain item or tool in a way that you are not used to. After doing so you think to yourself "wow, that was neat". You see many examples like these on the internet with those fantastic lists of "how to use everyday items in unconventional and super useful ways".

Changing the way we think and live doesn't happen by magic - it is a purposeful action that you have to take every moment until it eventually becomes smooth and effortless. Getting through the initial difficult phase is usually where people give up because most of us simply have never had to do that before. Often, thoughts like "I can't do it", "it's too difficult", "I'll do it tomorrow" win in these scenarios and lead to a cycle of self judgement that just pulls the person deeper into the funk of not doing anything. Unfortunately there is no magic solution to this - the answer is the same as before, the same as it will always be: You have to move yourself, put one foot in front of the other. You also have to stop those thoughts that sabotage you - tell them to piss off, you're doing this thing no matter what. In the end motivation isn't even necessary - you do what must be done because it must be done.