Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

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A candle problem and a donut, yesterday.

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Despite the burgeoning suspicion of popular psych books that are subtitled “The Surprising ~ ”,[1] and despite the truth about what motivates us not being that surprising — I mean, who doesn’t want “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in love, life and vocation? — Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is a timely and rewarding book — especially now, in this mad COVID inflexion point, where the world is up-ended, research programmes are in crisis, all bets are off and — who knows? — perhaps this time it might really be different[2] and we might finally be moving to some new sunlit upland paradigm of enlightened employment.

As he does in his TED talk, in Drive, Pink frames his narrative around the psychological experiment: the candle problem challenges participants to figure out how to attach a lighted candle to a wall so that no wax gets on the floor, using only matches and a tray of tacks. Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker correctly predicted the participants would, through “functional fixedness”, regard the cardboard tray as only a container for the thumbtacks and not otherwise relevant to the problem and would struggler to see a simple solution: tack the tray to the wall, and put the candle on the tray. Solving the problem requires a small amount of lateral thinking, to overcome the “functional fixedness”.

Interesting enough, but it took another gestalt psychologist, Sam Glucksberg to make it interesting to people who think investment bankers are poorly incentivised. Glucksberg ran the candle problem with two groups. One group was not offered any incentive but told the experiment was a to test out various problems to decide which to use in a later experiment. The other group were incentivised as follows: the fellow who solved the problem first would win twenty-five bucks. The top quartile of problem solvers would win $5. The remainder would get a donut. Zippo the hippo.

You will never guess what happened.

It turns out the group incentivised to be greedy capitalist rent-seekers behaved like, well, greedy capitalist rent-seekers. They were disinclined to collaborate, but, pace Adam Smith, the invisible hand did not nonetheless win out. This group forced themselves into a narrow, white-knuckle footrace towards a goal they didn’t well understand and so didn’t do very well.

The group without the pressure to kill or be killed, who had nothing at stake other than the satisfaction of knowing their work might be useful in some later project — heart-warming, right? — collaborated unselfishly and, on average, solved the problem much more quickly.

Now, this really ought not to need a Ted Talk to point out. The incentives are all wrong: they discourage collaboration of the sort which obviously will help in solving the problem.

But the puzzle isn’t understanding that “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” motivate people more than a bit of extra cash — who didn’t, instinctively, know that? — but why our corporate overlords who, in their reflective moments, surely know it as well, ignore this plain, a priori fact.

As ever, the JC has a theory: it is all about personal incentives. In the same way that the average wage-slave’s major motivator during her career is fear — and her primal instinct is the covering of her own behind, what propels the captains of our industry — being those who have overcome fear, hubris, a lack of absolute conviction in ones own value etc. — is personal glory, and seeing as, like all complicated and beautiful things, it is hard to convey the idea of “glory” in the abstract to the uncomprehending masses who will never have it, that faithful old stand-in for glory, enrichment, will have to do.

Solving the organisation’s, and its clients’, problems and achieving general commercial goals of the collective in a way that empowers and energises the rank and file is, you know, good, inasmuch as it generates a healthy pay packet, but it is still a second-order derivative of generating that healthy pay packet. If, by some unfortunate turn of events, the two should conflict, it should not take a clairvoyant to work out which imperative will prevail: it won’t be “the collective betterment of the whole”.

The JC likes to keep his glass half-full as you know, readers, but he is a perma-bear about human nature when articulated through the prism of investment banking, all the same. It will take more than the Glucksberg candle problem and the total falsification of the commuter ethos to change things, but we can only hope, and Mr Pink’s book can be our narrative as we do.

See also