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Carrots, Sticks, and the Paradoxes of Motivation

Shankar Vedantam - When Play Becomes Work - washingtonpost.com

Shankar Vedantam discusses research on motivation which points to the schizophrenic role that rewards can play in our perception of a task.

A host of experiments have shown that when threats and rewards enter the picture, they tend to destroy the inner drives. Paychecks and pink slips might be powerful reasons to get out of bed each day, but they turn out to be surprisingly ineffective -- and even counterproductive -- in getting people to perform at their best.

Add the right incentive, and you can encourage better output; add the wrong incentive and you risk removing the natural motivation people feel to do something for the intrinsic value they get out of it.

External rewards and punishments are counterproductive when it comes to activities that are meaningful -- tasks that telegraph something about a person's intellectual abilities, generosity, courage or values. People will voluntarily perform intellectually arduous work, for example, because it gives them pleasure to solve a puzzle or win a game of wits.

"If I pay my kids to do their homework, I am saying, 'You will get this if you do your homework,' but I am also saying, 'Homework is not likely to have intrinsic rewards,' " Benabou said.

One wild card I see in this deck is the role of leadership -- or better put: charisma. I've done ridiculous things for people I love and respect but can't be bothered to even feign attention for people who don't inspire me (it's why you don't want me as an employee unless you're crazy-smart). Something about a good leader motivates people to do things they never would have thought possible (even when it's not always in their best interest).

I also wonder about how this differs with personality types and class. I've known of some unbelievably wealthy people who have no financial need to ever work another day in their life. But, they're also some of the most motivated, productive, and sometimes, voraciously workaholic people I've ever heard of. Whether or not it's healthy or sustainable, something clearly drives them to keep building and growing.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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