What motivates you?

Jessie Paul discovers how different things motivate different people in this review of Dan Ariely's Payoff

Published 7 years ago on Jan 21, 2017 3 minutes Read

What makes humans interesting is our unpredictability. At the same time we are not as unique in our responses as we would like to believe. On the other hand once we’re trained to expect a certain response we may change our behaviour just to see what would happen. This is what makes human behaviour so fascinating as a field of study. And it isn’t just for fun — a better understanding of human behaviour can help you in business, marriage, child upbringing and any other area that requires interaction with humans!

A few years ago, we had trouble selling a beautiful apartment that we had heavily customised — mainly in terms of removing walls and creating more space. We thought the large open spaces were awesome. Our potential buyers probably wanted more rooms and privacy. The exact same situation is cited in this book — along with the solution. Wish I had known then. It is these personal anecdotes that makes the book come alive and make it a compelling read.

Do you work for money? Yes? The answer is only partly true. You probably work because of the joy of making something, hearing praise from your boss, the free coffee, the air-conditioning or even pizza vouchers. Different elements have a different weightage for varying types of jobs or people, but essentially money is not the only driving force. The author cites experiments to substantiate his case. The incentives that he uses are simple and you can try them in your own office environment to see if you can change behaviour. (If you’ve wondered that some people come to work because it’s nicer than sitting around at home — you’re right. And if you’ve wondered if people will work for a kind word, yes, that’s a proven fact too.) Importantly, the book also explains why people work even when there is no monetary need to do so. Humans are driven by a need to create, to leave behind a legacy that extends beyond their lifetime. 

But Payoff is not all about money. It also explains the trouble you have when you move something from a social interaction to a commercial one. When you borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbour, it is expected that you will return either the sugar or something equivalent, say the cake that you made with the sugar. What is not expected is that you will send the appropriate amount in cash. If you do, the next time you want to borrow, your neighbour is likely to ask how much you intend to pay and point out that their sugar is organic, sulphur-free and hence worthy of a premium. Same reason that you take a box of sweets or a bottle of wine or a casserole to a friend’s place for dinner as your ‘contribution’ rather than slip them an envelope with the cash equivalent to the food eaten.

The myriad responses we have and our ability to be unpredictable is what makes artificial intelligence so difficult. It is the reason why though chatbots are able to run structured conversations well they get tripped up by questions to which there are no perfect answers. While much of our interactions are stilted and scripted “How are you?”, “How is the weather?” etc., it is the occasional question that breaks through that proves we are human.

Read this book if you are pondering why you do what you do. Or if you are wondering why your office is such a dull, soul-sucking place. Or if you are working to design an environment that maximises productivity and makes the place more joyful. Payoff has tips on how to make the world a better place with a kind word, or an origami project.