11/29/2016 01:48 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2017

What We Misunderstand About What Motivates Us

What things should people better understand about motivation? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, on Quora.

As people, we misunderstand a lot about what motivates us.

One of the main things that people don't understand about motivation is the pleasure principle. People think that pursuing pleasure is what motivation is all about, but the reality is that motivation is often counter to pursuing pleasure. Pleasure is about sitting on the beach and drinking a mojito, pleasure is about watching a sitcom but in fact most of the things that give us deep motivation are things that are difficult and complex and sometimes even painful.

Think about things like writing a book or starting a company, having kids or running a marathon. If you take running marathons for example and you look at the people who are running marathons they don't look happy at all, it looks like there is zero amount of pleasure in what they are doing. If you came from outer space and were wondering about this phenomenon of running a marathon you would probably conclude that these people have been punished and this is the way they are paying their debts to society.

Marathons, writing books, starting business are things that give us deep pleasure but this pleasure is not measured in the momentary pleasure like having a drink or watching a sitcom. It's a very different pleasure.

The first point is when we think about motivation we think about short term pleasure but motivation is actually about long term meaning and the pleasure we get from long term meaning is a very different kind of pleasure.

The second main thing that we don't understand about motivation is that motivation is not just about money. When people think about motivation they have an equation that says motivation = pay, but the reality is that motivation has lots of different elements. We care about meaning, competition, a sense of achievement, progress, the welfare of others and all of these other elements in the motivation equation is not what comes to mind most easily.

For example, consider this experiment. In this experiment we asked people to build Lego Bionicles and we paid people to do so. We paid people a diminishing wage, more for the first, less for the second, etc. etc. until some point they stopped building. In one condition we asked them if they would like to build one and they said yes and when they finished we asked if they would like to build another for less if they said yes, they built and so and so forth until they stopped. This was the Meaningful condition. In another version which we called the Sisyphus we did the same thing but when people agreed they wanted to build a second Bionicle as they started we took the first Bionicle apart and put the pieces back in the box. When they finished the second one and we asked if they wanted to build a third one we gave them the one that they had built and we disassembled to reassemble and so on and so forth. In this condition, people build and rebuild the same two bionicles over and over. So what happened? In both conditions people built Bionicles but in the Meaningful condition people built much longer and more Bionicles and they were willing to work for less money. In the Sisyphus condition their motivation was incredibly cut. The amount of money they were making was the same but they were seeing their work destroyed in front of their eyes which destroyed their motivation.

I have described some of this research about the meaning of work in a TED Talk I gave which you can find here, and there is also more information about this in my most recent book called Payoff.

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