The Upside of Irrationality – Chapter 2: The Meaning of Labor

Why do we work? What motivates us to work?

From a rational economist point of view we should want to minimize work as it requires effort. However, as we all know work provides something more in our society – an identity, provides meaning, gives inspiration, which keeps many people working beyond the point of what is “necessary”.

An interesting question that does come up is would I work as hard if I knew no one would ever see the work I produced? For example, imagine a world where you go to work you are paid a great salary but everything you produce is shredded right in front of you right when you finish it. Would you still work? For most of us, this would be incredibly de-motivating and probably cause us to stop working. Many of us would find another job (even if it is lower paying) to know that what we work on can impact someone somewhere.

Ariely’s studies showed that if you place people who may love their work in an environment where they can’t see the output of their work or if their work goes largely unnoticed they perform worse. It is important to design work settings where people can see the output of their work (even if they work on a small component of the entire product) and get acknowledged for their contribution.

Notes –

  • Glen Jensen did a study finding that many animals preferred to earn food rather than simply eating identical but freely accessible food
    • Doesn’t make rational sense since earning requires work, so why would someone work if they can have something for free?
    • Contra-freeloading
  • What motivates us to work? Would we do work if no one else was deriving value from it, but we were still getting paid?
  • Why do I blog? This is work in itself, but I derive meaning from it which makes life feel better. The possibility of adding value and having others read my blog causes me to continue to write
  • Lego experiment
    • If you take ppl who love something and place them in a meaningful work condition the joy they get from the activity dictates their level of effort
    • If you take ppl and place them in meaningless work you kill the internal joy they derive from the activity
    • If you acknowledge someone’s work that is a huge motivator if you ignore or destroy their work that is a demotivator
    • Those in the shred work group also worked faster not caring about errors etc.
  • It is important for people to feel their work is meaningful, but if you look at the way work is divided many people don’t know the end result or it is designed poorly so that it can’t be enjoyed
    • Think about mass production principles
  • It is important to explain why the work is important to keep people goal focused and intrinsically motivated
  • People do not just do work for a pay check to buy food. People do work for meaning and inspiration so when work is not valued it is demotivating and causes pain. It is important to create work settings where people can value their work and feel like they are making a difference.
  • Ensuring a sense of completion and acknowledgement is very important

3 thoughts on “The Upside of Irrationality – Chapter 2: The Meaning of Labor

  1. Nicely written , do you think people work to survive,to gain a status, to not stay at home ,…., or just as a habit which may not be questioned , if we experiment each of this assumption do you they are correlated to why we work?

    1. I think it’s evolutionary. Our survival used to be contingent on the work we did, therefore, by default it was meaningful. Now we have the luxury of living in some form with or without work. However, this deep rooted need to have meaningful work hasn’t gone away. That is why if our work lacks meaning it is really hard to feel motivated.

      1. Your motivation part of your reply leaded me to search motivation ,still at the beginning , but I think we are talking about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and since you mentioned the luxury we live now in some forms , I think we need to add the context of the situation which may vary .

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