This article is about a big question. Perhaps even a somewhat pompous question. What is it to be human? Our answer often isn’t all that rosy. Humans, we say, are lazy and greedy creatures by nature. When during lectures I ask my audience what they think other people would do if they were given a free basic income, most are skeptical.
What would other people do? They’d sit around glued to the tube all day.
There’s a scientific term for this view of humanity. It’s called homo economicus. Long a cornerstone of economic science, reams of legislation and untold business models are based on it. It explains why bankers work harder to snare bonuses. It explains why curbing public assistance forces people off the couch. And why handing out F’s makes kids strive for A’s in school.
Even the two major ideologies of the 20th century – capitalism and communism – share this view of humanity. Both the capitalist and the communist will tell you that, in the end, there are only two ways to goad people into action: carrots and sticks. The capitalist bets on carrots (read: money), while the Lenins and Stalins of the world are mainly about sticks (read: terror).
But on one thing they’ll happily agree: humans don’t motivate themselves. We need incentives.
A grim view of humanity
You may be thinking, Oh, it’s not really as bad as that. I’m actually a very kind and creative person. And I’m not going to argue. In fact, I’m sure you’re right. This view of humanity that I’m describing applies mostly to other people.
Professor Chip Heath of Stanford University refers to this as our “extrinsic incentives bias.” We continually go around assuming other people are mostly in it for the money. In a survey of law students, for example, Heath discovered that whereas 64% of them were studying law because it was a long-time dream or simply because it interested them, only 12% believed the same held true for their fellow students. Those other guys? They were mostly in it for the money.
We continually go around assuming other people are in it for the money
And that pretty much sums up the basis for all of modern capitalism. “What workers want most from their employers, beyond anything else, is high wages,” said one of the world’s first consultants, Frederick Taylor, some hundred years ago. Taylor is known as the inventor of “scientific management,” a method premised on the notion that performance should be measured very precisely in order to make factories as efficient as possible. (And in the process exploit workers as much as possible.)
Today, Taylorism lives on in call centers, where every utterance of the staff is recorded for monitoring purposes; in doctor pay-for-performance programs; and – an example from the Netherlands – in home healthcare personnel who have to get their senior clients’ compression stockings off in under seven minutes, or else.
Taylor’s take on humanity was grim. In fact, he envisioned his ideal employee as a beast of burden: “so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles an ox.” But the thing about this proto-consultant which fascinates me more than anything else is his unparalleled popularity.
In the early 20th century the world was all agog at Taylor’s ideas – communists, fascists, and capitalists alike. From Lenin to Mussolini, from Harvard University to Renault, Siemens, and Bosch – Taylor’s theory continued to spread. In the words of his biographer, Taylorism “adapts the way a virus does, fitting in almost everywhere.”
Now, a lot has changed since Taylor’s day. There are plenty of startups where no one will bat an eye if you show up wearing cargo pants. And young professionals can often work flexible hours. But we haven’t lost our fixation on “efficiency” and “productivity.” And Taylor’s view of humanity – the conviction that only carrots and sticks will get people off the couch – is as pervasive as ever.
A renegade movement
It was at the height of the Cold War, in the summer of 1969, that the first renegade appeared.
A young psychologist made a discovery that flew in the face of all the Taylorist precepts. Edward Deci was researching for his PhD at a time when psychology was in the thrall of a theory known as “behaviorism,” which held the customary view that people are thoroughly passive creatures. The only thing powerful enough to goad us into action is a reward. Or fear of punishment.
Yet Deci had a nagging sense that something was being overlooked. All the time, people are doing bizarre things that don’t fit the behaviorist view. Like climbing mountains (cold!), volunteering (free!), and having babies (exhausting!).
In fact, we’re constantly doing things that don’t earn us a single cent and are even downright exhausting, of our own free will. Why, for goodness sake?
That same summer, Deci made an even more incongruous discovery: sometimes, sticks and carrots actually reduce performance. When he paid student subjects a dollar to figure out a puzzle, they actually lost interest in the puzzle itself. “Money may work to buy off one’s intrinsic motivation for an activity,” Deci wrote later.
This rather scientific-sounding conclusion was a nothing less than revolutionary hypothesis, with vast implications. Hence, most economists rejected it out of hand. Later Nobel Prize winners Robert Solow and Kenneth Arrow inveighed that financial stimuli should always be added to intrinsic motivation: if a student enjoyed doing a puzzle, a reward would only make him or her that much more enthusiastic.
Psychologists were equally dismissive of Deci’s assertions. “We were out of the mainstream,” recalled Deci’s co-researcher and best friend Richard Ryan, “The idea that rewards would sometimes undermine motivation was anathema to behaviorists.”
The search for homo economicus
And then something funny happened. Study after study began to come out confirming Deci’s suspicions.
For example, in Haifa, Israel, in the late 1990s a daycare center found itself in a predicament. When it came time for parents to collect their kids from the center, a quarter of them arrived late, after closing time, resulting in forlorn children and a supervisor who was forced to work overtime. On the advice of a couple of economists, the center decided to institute a fine of $3 each time a parent showed up late.
It seemed like a sound plan, because now the parents had not one but two reasons, both a moral and a financial one, to arrive on time.
The penalty policy was announced, and the number of parents who arrived late... went up. Before long, a third of them were arriving after closing time, and, within weeks, fully 40%. The reason, it was quickly discovered, was that parents saw the fine as a fee and therefore no longer felt any moral obligation to pick up their kids on time.
Since then, countless studies have been published that corroborate this finding. Sometimes, actions aren’t the sum of their motivations. Sometimes, motivations cancel each other out. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Massachusetts analyzed 51 studies on the effects of economic incentives in the workplace and found “overwhelming evidence” that bonuses blunt people’s intrinsic motivation and moral compass.
Researchers found “overwhelming evidence” that bonuses blunt people’s intrinsic motivation and moral compass in the workplace
And if that weren’t enough, they also found that bonuses and targets can undermine creativity. Carrots and sticks mostly just give you more of the same. Pay by the hour and you’ll get more hours. Pay by publication and you’ll get more publications. Pay by the operation and you’ll get more operations.
Here, again, it’s the similarity with the former Soviet Union that particularly fascinates me. Soviet managers worked to targets, just like our hospitals, universities, and banks do today. When targets went up – say, at a furniture factory – the quality of the furniture dropped. If someone decided that furniture should be paid by weight, suddenly there was a lot more heavy lifting to do.
It’s amusing, sure, but the sad thing is that this is precisely what is still happening at many organizations to this day. A large law firm that requires its staff to bill a minimum number of hours (2,000 a year, for instance), isn’t motivating its lawyers to work harder – only longer. Independent surgeons who are paid on a per-treatment basis are understandably more inclined to sharpen their scalpels than to deliver better care. Communist or capitalist, in both systems the tyranny of numbers drowns out intrinsic motivation.
So are bonuses a complete fallacy? No, not always. Research conducted by behavioral economist Dan Ariely has shown that bonuses can sometimes be genuinely effective. But only where the tasks are simple and routine, like those Frederick Taylor timed on his stopwatch at factories. Precisely the kinds of tasks, in other words, that in today’s economy are increasingly being done by robots, for which intrinsic motivation is a non-issue.
For us humans, however, it’s essential. We’re not the calculating robots the Taylorists and behaviorists make us out to be. Definite proof of this was supplied by Harvard Professor Joseph Henrich, who has circled the globe with his team in search of the homo economicus. They visited 15 small communities in 12 countries on five continents, subjecting farmers, nomads, hunters, and gatherers to a whole battery of tests in a quest for a person who squared with the view of humanity that has been guiding economists for decades.
To no avail. Each time, the results showed people to be too social and too intrinsically motivated.
But Henrich wasn’t to be deterred. Even after publication of the team’s paper, In Search of Homo Economicus, he continued the search for this elusive being, until he found it. Although, homo is not quite the right word. Because homo economicus, it turns out, is not a human, but a chimpanzee. “The canonical predictions of the Homo economicus model have proved remarkably successful in predicting chimpanzee behavior in simple experiments,” Henrich says.
“So, all theoretical work was not wasted, it was just applied to the wrong species.”
The effects of the negative view of humanity
It is high time for a new view of humanity. The lessons that Edward Deci taught us have still hardly found their way into practice. Too often, we still assume people are like apes. In the office. At call centers. At schools. In hospitals. At social services.
Everywhere you look, we assume others are lazy and selfish. Recently, a British study found that the vast majority of the population (74%) identify more closely with values such as helpfulness, honesty, and justice over money, status, and power. At the same time, the researchers found that the majority of people – 78% – hold other people to be more self-centered than they truly are.
It all boils down to this: our view of humanity is totally out of whack.
According to some economists, though, that’s OK. The neoliberal economist Milton Friedman once argued that if your assumptions about people are wrong, not to worry – as long as your predictions are correct. What Friedman forgot, however, is that our theories about one another have a way of turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. Assume something about someone, and that is precisely what they’ll give you. The more we believe that we are, in essence, homo economicus, the more we all behave like chimpanzees.
And the evidence for this is piling up. Back in the 1990s, the economist Robert Frank discovered that the longer students study economics, the more they resemble homo economicus. They act progressively more selfish, and expect that others will do the same. “We become what we teach,” says Frank.
How you’re rewarded also makes a difference. A few years ago, psychologists Sanford DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer demonstrated that lawyers and consultants who are paid by the hour end up putting a price on every minute of their day. Even when they’re not working. The upshot is that lawyers who meticulously bill their time are less willing to do volunteer work.
All in all, it’s astounding how many of society’s biggest problems are caused by the tyranny of the carrot and the stick. The list is endless. CEOs who focus solely on their quarterly results drag their companies down into the abyss. Academics who are evaluated mainly on their rankings are lured down the road of bogus research. Schools that are assessed on the measurable results of standardized tests gloss over skills that can’t be quantified. Psychologists who are paid to treat patients as long as possible prolong their treatments... as long as possible. Bankers that earn bonuses by selling as many subprime mortgages as they can bring the global economy to the brink of ruin. And so on and so forth.
A hundred years after Frederick Taylor, we’re still hard at work blunting one another’s intrinsic motivation. A large Gallup poll conducted a few years ago among 230,000 people in paid employment across 142 countries revealed that a mere 13% feel “engaged” in their work. Even in the United States, which topped the list, only 29% of the workforce feel enthused about their job.
In the words of the psychologist Barry Schwartz, “Ninety percent of adults spend their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be."
The revolution starts here
Think about these figures for a moment. This is how much ambition and energy we are letting go to waste. According to the psychologist Dan Pink, the fact that rewards undermine intrinsic motivation is “one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored.”
Now imagine for a moment that we were to reorganize the modern workplace to be keyed to everybody’s intrinsic motivation. It would mean an incredible revolution. CEOs would slave away out of faith in their companies, academics would burn the midnight oil out of pure curiosity, teachers would teach because they feel a duty to their pupils, psychologists would treat only as long as their clients require, and bankers would take pride simply in the services they render. Skill and competence would be treasured, instead of yields and productivity.
Imagine that we were to reorganize the modern workplace to be keyed to everybody’s intrinsic motivation. It would mean an incredible revolution
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of teachers, psychologists, and entrepreneurs who are profoundly motivated to help others. Not, however, by virtue of the carrot and the stick, but despite them.
Not long ago, I interviewed Jos de Blok, founder of Buurtzorg, a hugely successful home healthcare organization in the Netherlands. De Blok has chucked old management models for a bottom-up approach. When I asked about the biggest risks of intrinsic motivation, he didn’t have to think long. “Overwork.” That’s right. Organizations that ditch carrots and sticks don’t get paid back in laziness and idleness. Quite the opposite. They have to take care that their staff don’t work themselves into the ground from sheer enthusiasm.
Even today, when we talk about unmotivated job seekers, frustrated personnel, or greedy bankers, we have a tendency to assume that the fault lies in human nature. But what if it actually works the other way around? What if laziness, cynicism, and greed are all learned behaviors? And what if much of modern industry, our social welfare programs, and our education institutions have all been cut to accommodate this mold?
Suddenly, it’s evident that the problem isn’t our nature. After all, every parent knows that children come into the world filled with curiosity and playfulness. But just like plants need fertile soil to grow, humans need an environment that stimulates them. The promise offered by the new generation of psychologists and economists is that we’ll be able to evolve into a society in which we can continue to play. Or, better yet, a society in which the line between “work” and “play” is blurred – where we can cultivate our talents and pursue our dreams.
According to Edward Deci, the man who unleashed the revolution in thinking about motivation, the question is no longer how to motivate people, but how to shape society so that people motivate themselves. And that’s neither capitalist nor communist, neither left nor right. It is a whole new third movement, one we don’t even have a name for yet. But one thing is certain: nothing is more powerful than people who do what they do because they want to.
—Translated from Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore
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