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Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation [video] (ted.com)
121 points by ashishk on Aug 24, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

The material in this talk doesn't only apply to business. imo, every parent could benefit from considering an angle other than rewards and punishments.

At least one school figured it out 88 years ago: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summerhill_School

"Summerhill is noted for its philosophy that children learn best with freedom from coercion. All lessons are optional, and pupils are free to choose what to do with their time."

The idea that coercion stifles creativity is an old one and there have always been people on the fringes of society who know it. Until recently, the western world has been able to make progress with the factory model, leaving the creative work to those few fringe people, but it looks like that has run its course.

It may be that the next model is everybody doing creative work, but I have no idea what that would actually look like.

The guy is an amazing speaker. Look at his body language, his build-up and his timing. A lot of people could learn from that.

The idea was more interesting than his speaking, at least for me. I felt like Walter from The Big Lebowski - "... I did not know that...".

The talk claims to be about motivation, but his main piece of evidence only points to a link with spontaneous creativity. If you reran the candle experiment but gave the participants the problem statement 24 hours in advance, I would wager that the incentivized group would be more motivated to think through the problem the night before.

If you reran the candle experiment but gave the participants the problem statement 24 hours in advance, I would wager that the incentivized group would be more motivated to think through the problem the night before.

Motivation is a vector, not a scalar. The problem isn't that the people who are incentivized by reward aren't motivated, it is that the motivation they are given makes them behave a different way. In the case of largely creative work, the motivation they are given modifies their behavior in entirely suboptimal ways.

It's not just that you motivate people, it is what you motivated them toward.

Even if that is so, a majority of work (that requires thought) is progress that results from spontaneous creativity.

Its not just the business world. Most of our academic system is built around carrots and sticks. Exams and tests are the primary basis that determine our academic success. Creativity is the last thing that will help you in a timed exam. You have to get to the correct answer in a short amount of time. It is very mechanical.

The same system of measuring competence seeps into the corporate world. Job interviews, especially technical interviews are very similar to the exams, maybe worse.

This kind of stuff that Mr. Pink (someone should invite him out to dinner and find out if he doesn't tip :P) mentioned and guys like Alfie Kohn harp on about is intriguing, but there is one huge hole in the plot that I have never seen them address: The Problem of the Paycheck.

The studies that are being referenced lead naturally to the hypothesis "what would happen if I didn't give my employees any kind of artificial incentive at all?" (let's assume that they are all knowledge-work employees, say programmers for example).

The studies referenced in the talk and in Alfie Kohn's books suggest that you would see an increase in productivity, since that pesky, harmful incentive has moved out of the way.

Common sense (and experience, should anyone be foolish enough to actually try it) suggests that your workers will simply walk.

So while I think there is a lot of valuable insights to be gained from these experiments (e.g. people work like hell when something has meaning for them - see the works of Viktor Frankl for more on this), I think there's too much of a tendency to oversimplify and say "incentives are bad, mmkay?"

Actaully he addressed the paycheck problem quite directly: pay people decently, fairly, and then the team can focus properly without being distracted with worries about money (lack thereof or competing for bonuses). The logical extension of this is not "don't pay people" but pay everyone well enough and then ask them to impress you.

I find that I work best when I know I'm being compensated well, and can just forget about it and get to my job.

Salaries should be fair, based on market value, and completely out in the open. I don't understand the absurd secrecy and awkwardness around compensation, culminating in the unholy obscenity of the yearly performance review. You make what you make because that's what it takes to keep you there. If you don't love it, leave. If you're not happy with the money, get another offer. Apart from that, your work should be what motivates you, not the paycheck.

The Netflix culture slides captured my feelings on the topic well: http://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664 If I ever go to another BDC after Yahoo, it'd probably be Netflix.

OK then that naturally leads to a slightly different hypothesis: take the candle problem, but have 3 groups: a control group that is paid nothing, a group that is paid "decently and fairly", and a group that is paid according to incentives.

The idea isn't that a group is paid vs unpaid.

Salary, in this case, is not the type of incentive we're talking about. Having a decent salary is just to get the employee willing to work - not as an incentive to work at max capacity.

What we're talking about, really, is already past salary: is a group of fairly paid people more efficient and creative when motivated financially (say, by extra bonuses or salary increases) or by promises of autonomy (say, 20% time).

Thus, the candle problem, when placed in the real world, would have three groups: a control group which is paid 'decently and fairly', and a group that is paid 'decently and fairly' and is given financial incentives beyond that, and a group that is payed 'decently and fairly' and is given autonomy as an incentive.

Thus, the candle problem, when placed in the real world, would have three groups: a control group which is paid 'decently and fairly', and a group that is paid 'decently and fairly' and is given financial incentives beyond that, and a group that is payed 'decently and fairly' and is given autonomy as an incentive.

That's fine, but you still need a control group that is given no compensation at all as a baseline.

Not if that type of compensation is irrelevant to what you're testing. That would be like having a control group which wasn't fed.

A valid point, however not providing such a control group in this case would mean that you're simply assuming that your definition of 'decent and fair payment' is accurate, which is quite a large assumption.

This might be the most annoying TED speaker ever (come to think of it, the only one).

He might have something valuable to say but his voice and attitude are just too aggravatating to keep listening.

I disagree, I thought he spoke well. And at one point he got very passionate, and that's simply the way he expresses himself. It was refreshing to see.

yes, he talked very well.

Still, I had to pause and rewind the video several times, because he talked too fast. Thats because several links sprung up in my head, and ideas came.

I thought he was OK, but noticeably trying too hard.

What does that mean exactly?

I think that the fact that he was enthusiastic about his subject and clearly wanted to tell people about it came across as unpleasant or pushy or something.

I thought that just made it better - people who are interested in what they're talking about and want to tell you about it tend to be more interesting than those that just do it because they need to.

The jokes and gestures seemed studied to make an impression. It didn't come across so natural. But it did not bother me too much - I don't like being manipulated, but his words were entertaining enough, therefore the "OK" verdict.

I agree. I couldn't watch to the end.

If you think that's annoying, I can beat it:


Not only does he have the stage manner of an uncaring dentist, it's worth remembering he's an undemocratically elected leader espousing all sorts of nonsense about democracy.

he's an undemocratically elected leader

Care to explain what you mean by that?

I assume what is meant is that Tony Blair stood in the election, his party won and then later Gordon Brown was chosen to replace him by the party, not by the ordinary voter.

Oh, I suppose someone who doesn't understand the Westminster system might think that... but it's important to understand that the people never elected Tony Blair to the position of Prime Minister either.

(I should point out that people might not understand the Westminster system even if they live in a country that uses it. In Canada last year, there was a fiasco about how three opposition parties wanted to form a coalition government to replace the Prime Minister without an election. Perfectly legal, but a lot of Canadians were convinced that it was a sort of coup. The current Prime Minister exploited this and ended up keeping his seat.)

but it's important to understand that the people never elected Tony Blair to the position of Prime Minister either.

That's legally true but pragmatically false. Sure, we vote for the MP to represent our local seat and then a majority of MPs results in a leading party, but that's not how elections are pitched.

Back in 1997, we had a worse than useless Conservative party headed by John Major and a fresh, rebranded "New Labour" party headed by Tony Blair. People voted for Labour MPs in their droves to get Tony Blair into power. He was not technically democratically voted to the position of PM but that was considered the natural result of voting Labour.

We did not, however, vote for Brown in any form, legally or pragmatically. Indeed, it was not even considered at the time that he would be a successor. The same situation occurred with both Callaghan and Major but I personally feel the British public has less of a taste for the old school Westminster style and has a better feel for the almost presidential style brought in by Blair.

I found him non-trivially annoying, but nowhere near as douchechill-inducing as David Pogue.

It explains very nicely the average case. For people like the HN or TED audience and Google employees autonomy could be really effective motor. Yet among them there could be some individuals that really work better given carrot and stick.

I think one nice example in which autonomy works really well is academia. Neither there are big salaries for professors, nor they are dependent of a boss (in case they got tenured).

There's another problem no one has raised here, which is the problem of recruiting the best people. If you have the most exciting business, sure you can recruit great people. But for a lot of important-yet-boring businesses, incentives are the only place you can compete. So do you sacrifice your current employee's productivity or your recruiting potential?

Counterexample: the netflix prize.

Two factors cause the Netflix prize to be an exception to the rule:

1) The prize was so large as to throw usual rules of motivation out of the window. Anyone would attempt almost anything for $1 million.

2) The prize is a once-off, not an individual form of motivation. There's only one prize and to get it means prestige, beating others. The competition element counts for a lot. If your boss offers $10 to all workers who beat a certain quota, that's not the same thing.

I think that there's something to either one or both of your arguments, and that there are lots of further arguments:

3) The "candle experiment" applies only to medium-scale creative tasks

4) The "candle experiment" is one of a small class of lateral thinking problems for which monetary reward is negatively correlated with success

5) The "candle experiment" result only holds on tasks that last a short time

My question is, which hold, what's your evidence, and what experiments should be done next? I can think of a bunch, so if anybody wants to fund some research, let me know :)

I don't think a significant prize is what the talk is about. It's talking about being paid a salary, being rewarded with extra vacation vs. not being paid and freedom/mastery/purpose.

A significant reward past some threshold (which will differ by society) is bound to motivate.

> A significant reward past some threshold (which will differ by society) is bound to motivate.

This seems questionable, though likely, without empirical evidence. Especially given what data we do have.

I'm merely trying to think about where that threshold could be, or what the differentiating factors are in the netflix prize, that could cause it to be fundamentally different than Ariely's rewards. Was his "large reward" simply not large enough? Is it on "medium difficult" tasks that his result holds, but not on very difficult tasks combined with very large rewards?

don't downvote without explaining why you disagree! It's a creative task for which a monetary prize was extremely effective.

A true counterexample would show that the monetary prize gave a faster or better result than no prize. Without a control, you haven't shown anything.

Would you care to defend the claim that the netflix contest would have attracted anywhere near the amount of effort it did, without a million dollar prize at the end?

I understand that the Netflix "experiment" has no control, but that doesn't mean we should dismiss it as evidence. (And start talking X-Prize, Darpa grand challenge, etc. My assertion is that payments work sometimes, and clearly don't work other times, and I'm wondering why that is.)

Personally, I think the million dollar prize is just a way to justify it to your spouse / boss / whoever holds the carrots and sticks in your life. It's an appeasement tactic so that those who love tinkering with this stuff can do so guilt-free, because it "might" lead to That Ultimate Approved Outcome.

Same with the X-Prize, and the Darpa grand challenge. Those teams spent way more on their entries than the challenge money brought back. Throwing in a few million just legitimizes the fun that everybody's having; it's not actually the motivator. I mean seriously; you think Red doesn't build robots when Darpa doesn't have prizes?

> you think Red doesn't build robots when Darpa doesn't have prizes?

I assume Red is some dude who builds robots. I apologize for not knowing who you're referring to.

But anyway! I'll assume he's a Darpa grand challenge winner and some awesome robotics dude.

I don't think he would have gained as much as he has, technologically, without the competition that most certainly wanted to win the Darpa challenge.

These competitions don't change the dominant players in the game; what they do is move the margin, and force the dominant players to be that much better, because they want to remain dominant.

My theory is that $1 million -> prestige -> more entrants in DGC -> better tech than would have been created otherwise. Thoughts?


Yes. Your theory is correct. But the key link is prestige. The DGC entrants aren't really expecting make a profit.

But I think the prestige is dependent on the million.

You're still missing what the experiments showed- money expands the time taken to do a finite task. Indeed, the base argument is that without a million dollar prize, much less effort would have been expended... yielding the same degree of success. The defense rests on the experimental data and the similar evidence of Wikipedia and kernel patches.

The X-Prize and Darpa challenges are qualitatively different in that the tasks require (expensive) material components, not just the undervalued resource of time. Nothing in the talk covers this scenario, and I'd suggest extra experiments.

> The defense rests on the experimental data and the similar evidence of Wikipedia and kernel patches.

This is where we disagree; I don't think the netflix prize would have been successful without a monetary reward.

I don't have a good argument at the moment, mainly because I don't think anybody has a good argument why Linux and Wikipedia worked.

I also think the X-Prize and Darpa challenges are more similar than you think they are, but need some time to think. Thanks for responding intelligently and giving me food for thought.

(Also, if you want to follow Pink's argument exactly, you need to claim that success would have come faster not merely as fast had there been no monetary reward.)

A true counterexample would show that the monetary prize gave a faster or better result than no prize. Without a control, you haven't shown anything.

Fair enough. A counterexample: "the paycheck." :)

I thought this was great. I typed up a few summary notes that I can refer back to on it: http://philfreo.com/blog/interesting-ted-talk-on-motivation/

When he mentioned the experiments where monetary reward is shown to stifle creative problem solving, it made me think of the frequently quoted advice: do what you love and the money will come. I wonder if there is a link there?

I think a lot of old proverbs have a significant amount of truth in them.

Does this apply to goals you set for yourself? I've always been very goal-oriented, and I record and track my goals. I review and adjust them as I go, to try and avoid becoming a slave to some decision I made five years ago, but are goals still likely to end up blinding you to creative possibilities because you're too focused on what you already see?

CEOs and analysts/associates at our fine US financial institutions are probably going to be a little miffed by this talk.

I hope they begin to reconsider their model of giving multi-million dollar bonuses and 'guaranteed bonuses.' The TED speaker pointed out that when incentivized, workers' range of thought focused rather than thinking about the big picture.

A great deal of the current meltdown was caused by focusing on the immediate task of making the day's trades, but missing the looming crisis of fundamentals. Some called this, "picking up nickels in front of a bulldozer."

Of course they won't. They'd love it if the rest of us gave up monetary rewards and benefits and worked hard for intangibles, and they'd get to keep theirs and most of ours.

Oh, you mean the CEOs will give up their financial incentives? I think they're laughing their collective heads off.

I think that the disconnect between science and business that he alludes to is not entirely accidental; it is a form of short-term, selfish risk mitigation.

The benefits of the organizational system Dan Pink lays out include increased satisfaction, increased autonomy, and increased productivity and increase responsibility. There are drawbacks though; things such as increased workload and increased responsibility, and a sense of decreased security.

This last point is extremely problematic. The current primary purpose of this thing called a job is not to be productive, creative or anything positive. A job is aligned as an mechanism to avoid a negative; you have a job to protect the security and comfort of you and your family, and perhaps to protect your sense of social class. The other purposes are tangential except to where they help distance you further from the negative.

In the case of attempting to avoid a negative, a road map on where to go comes in extremely handy. By following the map, you are reasonably well assured not to fall off any cliffs. This is where incentives and requirements come in for the business world; they are like a road map on how to keep your job.

However, by following the road map, you also miss the chance to discover parts of the area few if any other people have explored. Where you miss the lows, you also miss the highs. But, when you are scared almost motionless of the cliffs, this would appear a net win. So goes the thinking: new discoveries are interesting, but cliffs are deadly.

Then someone like Dan Pink comes along and says "you'd be happier and more productive if you had more autonomy," and you think he is completely insane. More autonomy means more responsibility, and more responsibility means less to separate oneself from the short-term negatives. You don't give a damn about happiness; your focus is entirely on survival. Your intrisic motivation is to follow the extrinsic motivations, because anything else seems like suicide.

The problem that Dan didn't allude to that I will is that by focussing on survival, you completely screw both. Where people assume this sort of extrinsic motivation, and the lower productivity that comes with it, a feedback loop kicks in. Lower productivity begets lower revenue begets lower available cash begets lower headcount, and repeat until either the equation stabilizes or everyone is gone. The difference is that the employees remained another six months or so, and no one in the future will hold them responsible for the death of the organization. No surprise, they constructed an entire organization around not being held responsible for anything.

Hell, even as a society we don't -- at least in the USA. It just occurred to me; if you need proof of that, look no further than our unemployment insurance system. The entire premise of that system is that, if you were laid off from an employer, it was through no fault of your own. The system even encourages you to get back to a place where you can't be held at fault again, and threatens to cut benefits if you aren't actively looking. If you were fired, in many states you don't get UI. If you quit, even fewer if any provide UI. If a business you built goes bankrupt, you are likewise screwed.

The entire incentive system in this country is based around cowering in a cubicle, because everyone is convinced the risks are an absolute certainty, and outside of a narrowly incentivized path there is no hope for survival.

As I mentioned above, the problem with this is that it screws us in the long term really badly. We end up running like an extremely badly tuned engine, operating at some small fraction of our total possible productivity. We make ourselves less rich than we might otherwise be, we make ourselves less secure because we flirt much closer with the break even point of productivity in a monetary sense, and we make ourselves less happy because we are all abjectly aware of our own precarious condition. I don't have the data for this, but I honestly wonder if cracks in this precarious balance aren't what drove some of this recession we are now in.

For what its worth, this is where I look very positively upon the startups of the world. To all of them on HN who are listening, huge props to all of you. Likewise, props to the other companies who have figured this out. You all give me the hope that by serving as a testbed for some of Dan Pink's ideas -- perhaps by necessity --, you push all the people who drag their feet into the better world they are so desperately afraid of.

sigh. And sorry about the length of this; it would probably take me some time to edit it down to a smaller size, and I'd rather get the ideas out there now.

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