Jun 1, 2010


There is an interesting TED talk making the rounds.  You can watch it here.  The talk outlines how studies have been done which show that people are not motivated by money.  In fact they generally perform worse when motivated by money.  Instead autonomy, mastery, and purposefulness are what motivate people.

Very interesting finding and it obviously has implications on how businesses should motivate workers.

The speaker, Dan Pink, says in the talk that he wants to make "a hard headed, evidence based, ... lawyerly case".  Here's the thing.  He doesn't.  I've had one hell of a time finding the academic studies that back this up.  He mentions 3 research works.

Sam Glucksberg.  His studies are here. I haven't read all his papers but the titles do not give any concrete clues as to which paper used the candle experiment to show what Dan says Sam showed.

I did find the Ariely paper, here.  I'm not sure if it is peer reviewed.  It's a "Working Paper" for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.  And on first blush going through the paper it seems like the negative pay-for-performance results are of the "choking under pressure" type which are well understood.  Effectively the participants in the studies could earn up to 6 months of average expenses for people in their village.  You can see how people could get flustered with this kind of incentive.  But choking under pressure doesn't seem to apply broadly to most of the types of activities people do at work so I'm not sure it's applicable.

Finally Irlenbusch from the London School of Economics is cited.  His studies are here.  There's some interesting papers that are "forthcoming" but nothing that is published that fits the mold of Dan's talk.

I'm not saying what Dan's talk says is not true.  I'm saying the support for his statements is thin.  And that even taken with a grain of salt there are huge questions about the applicability to actual work environs. But no one is questioning anything about this talk.  No reading of the original academic papers, no effort to truly understand what these papers said and no reporting of it.  Just blanket acceptance the it's the gospel. It's kind of creepy.

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