November 19, 2017

Reading Uncertainly: ‘Payoff’ by Dan Ariely

What is “motivation” and how does it affect our daily activity? Is motivation “central to our lives”? Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, explores the human feeling of identification with and empathy for others, suggesting these two feelings help stimulate motivation, while their absence destroys it.

This brief book (103 pages) combine stories from Dr. Ariely’s personal life and his continuing work studying our strange behaviors. It continues his earlier work: Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, all of which I’ve read with fascination.

At the very start, the author describes his own teenage accident in Israel, in which he sustained severe burns over some 70 percent of his body, leading to three years of hospitalization and slow and painful recovery. It was then he began to discover the idea of motivation, enlarged later when he helped a friend’s two teenage children, similarly injured.

As he writes, “I also realized how many of our motivations spring from trying to conquer a sense of helplessness and reclaim even a tiny modicum of control over our lives.” Any success in such an effort becomes a “feeling of accomplishment.” This then leads to the need to “look closely at the positive side of motivation,” creating pleasure and affection for your own handiwork.

But does financial reward motivate us? Ariely suggests “money matters far less than we think.” We should avoid “overemphasizing the countable dimension and beware (my italics) treating the uncountable dimension as if it were easily countable.” This skewers the old adage that if you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist!

He continues: “In short, these findings suggest that when we are in the midst of a task, we focus on the inherent joy of the task, but when we think about the same task in advance, we over-focus on the extrinsic motivators, such as payment and bonuses. This is why we are not good predictors of what will motivate us and what will crush our motivation. This inability to intuit what will make us happy at work is sad.” Trust and goodwill seem to be far better inspirations than cash … Is it possible that large bonuses are actually counterproductive?

Dr. Ariely concludes: “We are certainly far from grasping the full complexity of motivation, but the journey to understand  … (its) nuances … (is) exciting, interesting, important and useful.”

As usual, brevity enhances comprehension. A short book motivates continued reading!

Editor’s Note: ‘Payoff ‘ by Dan Ariely is published by TED Books, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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