The puzzle of motivation

by Lorenzo Piccoli

Traditional rewards aren’t always as effective as we think. Dan Pink starts from the candle problem, an experiment done by Sam Glucksberg, who is now at Princeton University. 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. For Americans believing in the free market, bonuses, incentives this plainly makes no sense.

This talk is about the capacity to look for solutions on the periphery. Rewards, incentives, bonuses, instead, narrow our focus and restrict our possibilities.