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December 14, 2012

M for Motivation

When taking the early train into Central London, I see many people commuting. Looking around the carriage, I think to myself, "Where do people find the motivation to commute to work?" Trying to answer this question, my dad recommended I’d read a chapter from the book The Upside of Irrationality, written by Dan Ariely. The chapter of the book was called The Meaning of Labour. In the book, Ariely talks about experiments he and his colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had carried out. Amongst all the experiments he described, there was one I liked the most.

Two participants were asked to build Lego robots and they would be paid a decreasing amount of money for every one they made. The first participant was told the robots would be kept in a box for later use. He started building the robots and soon enough, after ten robots, he gave up, because he realised that the price of the 10th robot was half of what he was paid for the first, so economically it didn’t make sense for him to continue.

The second participant was being paid for the robots in the same way. But after finishing one and beginning the next one the assistant began dismantling the previous robot in front of him. The participant was not happy with the dismantling and gradually his motivation to build the robots diminished. Even if he was to be paid the same amount as the first participant, he saw no point in continuing after the fourth robot was built. It is clear his reason for stopping was not the money.

The first participant was able to point at the finished robots and feel pride for what he had achieved. The second participant felt that he had nothing to show for his work and saw no point in completing the task. The emptiness the second participant felt, when the assistant destroyed his robots, worked against his willingness to continue with the experiment.

This experiment made me look back at my Internship during the summer, where I was analysing time-series of data and producing daily reports and charts. In the beginning, I was focusing on producing the reports as fast as possible. After a while, I noticed that some of the reports were not being used. The reason was the markets were moving very fast and the conditions were changing all the time, so my work was not up-to-date. I discussed this with the manager and he ensured me that my analysis was of good quality, but as the market conditions change, the reports were "yesterday’s" news. That made me feel demoralised, but this was the "nature" of my work.

What bothered me the most was the fear that my work was not being recognised, thus impacting my motivation. The reassurance from my colleague helped me overcome this feeling.

As I write this blog, I suddenly realise that writing it is similar to building "lego robots" that may soon be dismantled. Perhaps only my family reads them. Not knowing how many people read my posts can be demoralising, but I am not giving up. As someone famous once said: "Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going."

It seems the field of psychology can play an important role in helping us develop our own understanding of what motivates us and how to improve our performance. It may also help employers understand that more money is not always the best way to increase productivity and performance.

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