Who said logic makes sense?

By Donald Officer

Whatever our official job descriptions, we are all part-time motivators. Given that motivation is so central to our lives, what do we really know about it?  –    Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely, wrote Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, as a TED Book in 2016. It is brief and whimsical in tone. You might recollect, the preferences and dislikes you could choose to act upon were a topic that once consumed many devoted hours early in our lives. From what I’ve heard and seen, however, even the most driven don’t get much mileage out of such introspective soliloquies.

So, when Ariely, who has been criss-crossing this subject area for some time, puts his findings down in concise English we should be grateful. He may have spared us some dead-end rumination. His earlier and quite popular works provide more than a hint of a convoluted curiosity as well as a mischievous temperament: Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, and Irrationally Yours. If those titles aren’t enough to telegraph their tone, consider Ariely’s job description at Duke University (where he is also Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics). Dan Ariely is founder and director of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. Some topics are just too important to take seriously.

At the same time, Ariely’s own deepest questions about motivation stem from a very intense, frighteningly painful period in his life. As a teenager he suffered a terrible accident leaving him with burns to 70% of his body. The long excruciating recovery with daily removal of bandages, scraping of wounds, inevitable infections and operations would leave him with agonizing physical and mental scars for life. It also reinforced his powerful motivation to endure and regain control despite the profound discouragement of long suffering and unavoidable helplessness.

However slow, Ariely’s recovery was in the cards. Recollecting his range of reactions, much later he had his research team test for fluctuation in motivation during experiments. In one series, after significant accomplishments, participants were forced to watch their efforts being undone before their eyes just as young Ariely experienced daily setbacks to his sense of self-control as his burns were scraped and redressed. Even if well-paid or rewarded with recognition or another significant form of appreciation, anyone who achieves something of value is deprived of any sense of meaning and autonomy while witnessing that same product being dismantled or discarded.

In another bit of manipulation in the name of science, for exceeding a production quota, Ariely’s group offered participants a choice of either a $30 bonus, a certificate for purchase of a pizza or a congratulatory text from a senior manager commending their good work. A control group also challenged with meeting the higher target was offered no reward. As expected the control group did not increase productivity by much, but the pizza certificate and the compliment options were close to each other as motivators, beating out the cash incentive by almost 50%. When it comes to incentives, money isn’t everything.

In another chapter, Ariely looks at the esoteric topic of final requests and bequests. Values differ from person to person – narcissists think nothing of extravagant caskets and elaborate funerals, while more generous souls who lived frugally for decades leave fortunes to favored causes.

Whatever their core values, in quirky, often surprising variations, many people in every culture are motivated to make exceptional statements as grand gestures for posterity.  They will obviously never see their last wishes enacted. Legacy matters.

Ariely, like his readers, remains amazed by the complexity and mystery of motivation. Remembering the awful intensity of the months after his accident, he seems to find the unlikely drivers that kept him going despite innumerable disappointments and reversals still puzzle him just as many unexpected motivators in ordinary life continue to surprise whoever cares to notice.

Confused though the tangle of motivation may be, themes stand out. Acknowledgment for what we have accomplished is consistently important. How others think about us matters. The future we have had a hand in making is significant, whether we admit it or not. Given all that, how will you feel if it dawns on you that you have not acknowledged what people have done for you? What will you do if you realize you’ve failed to express your gratitude for everything you’ve been given and it’s nearly too late?

Traditional wisdom is always available to us. The question is how to apply it. Appreciating how complex the drivers in our life really are, may provide some insight. It should definitely gift us with humility. The task is even more daunting when we realize we’re expected to motivate others. We are inclined to believe we know what and how people think because we’ve been watching them since infancy. Science implies we draw conclusions too hastily. What we can infer is that other people are facing the same intricacies or nuances we are.  In his conclusion, Dan Ariely asks us to look for the signposts of worthwhile intent: to seek connection, meaning and ownership in what we undertake. If our journey requires long-term thinking or careful observation, should we not be nonetheless grateful for the chance to make the trip!



What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.