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The Upside of Irrationality
The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home
Paying More for Less
Why Big Bonuses Don't Always Work
Imagine that you are a plump, happy laboratory rat. One day, a gloved human hand carefully picks you out of the comfy box you call home and places you into a different, less comfy box that contains a maze. Since you are naturally curious, you begin to wander around, whiskers twitching along the way. You quickly notice that some parts of the maze are black and others are white. You follow your nose into a white section. Nothing happens. Then you take a left turn into a black section. As soon as you enter, you feel a very nasty shock surge through your paws.
Every day for a week, you are placed in a different maze. The dangerous and safe places change daily, as do the colors of the walls and the strength of the shocks. Sometimes the sections that deliver a mild shock are colored red. Other times, the parts that deliver a particularly nasty shock are marked by polka dots. Sometimes the safe parts are covered with black-and-white checks. Each day, your job is to learn to navigate the maze by choosing the safest paths and avoiding the shocks (your reward for learning how to safely navigate the maze is that you aren't shocked). How well do you do?
More than a century ago, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson* performed different versions of this basic experiment in an effort to find out two things about rats: how fast they could learn and, more important, what intensity of electric shocks would motivate them to learn fastest. We could easily assume that as the intensity of the shocks increased, so would the rats' motivation to learn. When the shocks were very mild, the rats would simply mosey along, unmotivated by the occasional painless jolt. But as the intensity of the shocks and discomfort increased, the scientists thought, the rats would feel as though they were under enemy fire and would therefore be more motivated to learn more quickly. Following this logic we would assume that when the rats really wanted to avoid the most intense shocks, they would learn the fastest.
We are usually quick to assume that there is a link between the magnitude of the incentive and the ability to perform better. It seems reasonable that the more motivated we are to achieve something, the harder we will work to reach our goal, and that this increased effort will ultimately move us closer to our objective. This, after all, is part of the rationale behind paying stockbrokers and CEOs sky-high bonuses: offer people a very large bonus, and they will be motivated to work and perform at very high levels.
Sometimes our intuitions about the links between motivation and performance (and, more generally, our behavior) are accurate; at other times, reality and intuition just don't jibe. In Yerkes and Dodson's case, some of the results aligned with what most of us might expect, while others did not. When the shocks were very weak, the rats were not very motivated, and, as a consequence, they learned slowly. When the shocks were of medium intensity, the rats were more motivated to quickly figure out the rules of the cage, and they learned faster. Up to this point, the results fit with our intuitions about the relationship between motivation and performance.
But here was the catch: when the shock intensity was very high, the rats performed worse! Admittedly, it is difficult to get inside a rat's mind, but it seemed that when the intensity of the shocks was at its highest, the rats could not focus on anything other than their fear of the shock. Paralyzed by terror, they had trouble remembering which parts of the cage were safe and which were not and, so, were unable to figure out how their environment was structured.
Yerkes and Dodson's experiment should make us wonder about the real relationship between payment, motivation, and performance in the labor market. After all, their experiment clearly showed that incentives can be a double-edged sword. Up to a certain point, they motivate us to learn and perform well. But beyond that point, motivational pressure can be so high that it actually distracts an individual from concentrating on and carrying out a taskan undesirable outcome for anyone.
Of course, electric shocks are not very common incentive mechanisms in the real world, but this kind of relationship between motivation and performance might also apply to other types of motivation: whether the reward is being able to avoid an electrical shock or the financial rewards of making a large amount of money. Let's imagine how Yerkes and Dodson's results would look if they had used money instead of shocks (assuming that the rats actually wanted money). At small bonus levels, the rats would not care and not perform very well. At medium bonus levels, the rats would care more and perform better. But, at very high bonus levels, they would be "overmotivated." They would find it hard to concentrate, and, as a consequence, their performance would be worse than if they were working for a smaller bonus.
So, would we see this inverse-U relationship between motivation and performance if we did an experiment using people instead of rats and used money as the motivator? Or, thinking about it from a more pragmatic angle, would it be financially efficient to pay people very high bonuses in order to get them to perform well?
The Bonus Bonanza
In light of the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent outrage over the continuing bonuses paid to many of those deemed responsible for it, many people wonder how incentives really affect CEOs and Wall Street executives. Corporate boards generally assume that very large performance-based bonuses will motivate CEOs to invest more effort in their jobs and that the increased effort will result in higher-quality output.* But is this really the case? Before you make up your mind, let's see what the empirical evidence shows.
To test the effectiveness of financial incentives as a device for enhancing performance, Nina Mazar (a professor at the University of Toronto), Uri Gneezy (a professor at the University of California at San Diego), George Loewenstein (a professor at Carnegie Mellon University), and I set up an experiment. We varied the amount of financial bonuses participants could receive if they performed well and measured the effect that the different incentive levels had on performance. In particular, we wanted to see whether offering very large bonuses would increase performance, as we usually expect, or decrease performance, analogous to Yerkes and Dodson's experiment with rats.The Upside of Irrationality
The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. Copyright © by Dan Ariely. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.