Are you Predictably Irrational?

Simply thinking about money made participants less likely to ask for help.

Finished Predictably Irrational, a little while ago, it’s by Dan Ariely a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.

One of my favorite bits in the book talks about the establishment of social norms in the workplace. The origins of the 40-hour work week have obvious roots in the industrial revolution, punching in and out, you knew when you were working for “the man.” It was a clear market exchange. Today companies see a clear advantage in creating a social exchange, with blurred lines as the makers of social capital, emotional effort, and creative experiences. Creativity is highly sought in the marketplace, but often becomes lost as careers extend on a single track, when visionary goals are set aside amidst the standard market exchange utilizing the countable opposed to uncountable metrics.

One of the best ways to motivate visionary thought and social exchange is through recognition, reputation, and social rewards. But the highly strived for, “good customer experience” needs to be extended to employees as well, companies must understand the employee’s implied long term commitment. When asked to go above and beyond, accomplish a task ahead of schedule, or work on a special cross-collaborative new project, employees should get something in return – support when they are sick, extra vacation time, or job security when the market threatens to take jobs away. But the current obsession with short term profits, cost cutting, and endless gains in efficiently, the entire balance is threatened. In social relationships, it’s expected that when something goes awry, the other party will be there to help and protect them. This belief is not spelled out in a contract, but it is there nonetheless. To keep that long term implied commitment, companies must strive to support employees in time of need.

And then this principle of monetary motivation was demonstrated again in a fantastic experiment outlined in the book. Performed by Kathleen Vohs (a professor at the University of Minnesota), Nicole Meade (a graduate student at Florida State University), and Miranda Goode (a graduate student at the University of British Columbia), the theory of thought surrounding monetary statements vs. neutral statements was explored in the realm of work. They discovered that merely thinking about money or salary affected the way the participants behaved. Two groups, a control and a test group, were asked to complete “scrambled sentence tasks” before they performed what would be the actual testing scenarios. One group completed their first task with sentences that contained things like “It’s cold outside.” While the second group was primed with phrases such as “High-paying salary.” After these priming activities, the participants were tasked with solving a difficult visual puzzle, in which they were told they could ask the experimenter for help. The students in the “neutral” category asked for help after approximately three minutes, while those in the “salary” category waited on average about five and a half minutes before asking for help, showing more than a 50% increase in time waited to ask for assistance. Demonstrating that simply thinking about money made participants less likely to ask for help. But not only this, those participants in the “salary” group were also less willing to help others. In fact, they were less willing to help an experimenter enter data, less likely to assist another participant who seemed confused, and less like to help a “stranger” (an experimenter in disguise) who “accidentally” spilled a box of pencils. Indeed these individuals showed characteristics that could be categorized as market driven; they were more selfish, more self-reliant, wanted to spend more time alone, they were more likely to select tasks that required individual input rather than teamwork. So, when deciding what you want from your workforce, think closely about the way you prime them on a daily basis, what traits you want them to express, and how you want them to interact with each other.

Highly recommended read.