The Surprising (!) Science of Motivation? Really?

My dad, the consummate natural scientist, actually sent me this link for an entertaining video on “The Science of Motivation” here.  (It’s about 10 minutes long.)  It’s presented by the RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), who, as far as I can tell, are a think tank of sorts in Britain with a heavy social scientific bent looking to make the world a better place.  Unfortunately, they’ve been at it for 250 years, so no fast solution in sights yet it seems. 

It’s actually pretty neat.  The drawing and writing are amazing in themselves.  But my beef is with the content and orientation of the science.  Apparently, “people” are just now figuring out that human beings—you know, that vast array of diverse diasporas and groups and cultures spanning the globe, the same group that never ceases to amaze us all that we keep creating ways and reasons to study them—are NOT motivated only by monetary reward?  E-gads!!! Someone call Washington!  Someone call the UN!  Someone call the humanities and social science departments…. oh wait.  That last group should already know this. 

Now, I don’t mean to deride the science it took to understand the point these studies are making, i.e. the difference between complex cognitive tasks and simpler physical tasks.  It’s interesting to prove this via the cited experiments (especially with such neat drawings!).  But, that’s not the larger the picture (which the RSA tells us it wants to affect).

“Pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.”  This is interesting in so far as it goes . . . which isn’t very.  The question we ought to be asking is why is X dollars “enough” to “take it off the table”?  Is this a constant?  Many social scientists undoubtedly think so, or at least they present it as is so.  After all, they went and transferred the experiment to India without any contextual adjustment whatsoever.  This type of quantitative empiricism happens a lot.  An even better question, I think, is why X dollars is “enough” for a woman being super-exploited (in both the value-laden and substantive Marxist sense) in Juárez and Y dollars is “enough” for rich white male bankers on Wall Street? 

The 3 factors that drive this brand of motivation seem problematic.  “Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose” we are told are the keys shown “by science.”  The 3 are provided as universals; I argue they are not.  A well-versed anthropologist or multicultural history could provide ample evidence to the contrary.  But, other societies matter for less and less in the increasingly globalized world.  As for myself, I know that I am “autonomous” to a very low degree: if it were not for special people in life I may have never made it out of my undergrad.  Heck, I was surprised to find myself in college at all at first.  And more to point, I don’t desire to be any more autonomous.  That’s why I’m interested in what other people say and do and why I hope some people read and think about this very blog post. 

Concerning Purpose, he states that “When the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen.”  A poorly chosen reference appears in the video here.  Many years ago, a little bearded man named Max Weber showed a key connection between the profit motive and purpose—they were intrinsically connected in a segment of Europe at the least.  But, as we know, many, many, many very bad things happen even and especially when the two are connected.  This is to say nothing of the basic point that “purpose” can be disembedded from the profit motive.  Indeed, even the Nazi’s (whom I bring up only because the video drawing alludes to them) had an ethos, a purpose behind their philosophy.  In any case, purpose can be aligned with motive: any economy has an underlying motive, purpose, and ideology for good or ill.  To say that “bad things happen” “when the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive” says essentially nothing.

The other point that occurs to me is that of discourses.  Management, we learn, would never have let workers (for they are workers of the archetypal type in my opinion) off the leash for 24 hours to do whatever they want under normal procedure.  However, it is not so radical.  Firstly, the dominant ideology is of sufficient strength to allow this.  Secondly, it’s for a short enough period, that, well, what are they gonna do?  Third, and here’s where I arrive at discourses, these scientists along with the class they serve—Management—are finally listening to this type of argument because it’s coming from the apparatus (in the Althusserian sense) they support.  “Oh, Frederick from the Sloan School of Management has OK’ed this.  Now I understand.”    

All in all, the entire scheme, the worldview that is presented is one deeply in line with modernization theory (and thus comfortably in line with the RSA’s whole rhetoric of “21st Century Enlightenment”) and pans out as a complex rationalization for capitalism.  I’m reminded by a radical scholar who came to CU a few years ago named Gustavo Esteva.  He spoke specifically about Mexico, neoliberalism, globalization, the modern era, and the need for new paradigms of thought and direction (much like the RSA!).  I still remember, after the talk a student rose up, very much caught up in the spirit of this humble guy’s talk, and asked confidently, with all the best intentions in the world, Boulder, CO-style, something like, “So, what then do you think are the best strategies for, you know, sustainable development?”  Mr. Esteva looked exhausted.  He hadn’t gotten through to us.  “Development for what?” he asked, leaving a long pause afterwards.  “You can no longer dream your dreams; they are already dreamt for you; it is very humiliating.”

2 thoughts on “The Surprising (!) Science of Motivation? Really?

  1. Caution: these comments are fairly disorganized, and probably contain sloppy thinking and writing. Proceed at your own risk! But here are two general things.

    1. This guy is summarizing other people’s research (poorly) in basically a TED talk that is also probably kind of an ad for his book. So, he is speaking loosely and so I’m not quite taking him word for word (or, image for image–although I must admit, the Nazi thing went over my head). Instead, I went to the research: namely , Ariely et al “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes” 2009 Review of Economic Studies. They provide documentation of plenty of past social science work about the trouble with monetary incentives–suggesting that the “hey wow this is new and mind-blowing!” was more a promotional “hey look how contrarian I sound” bit of speechifying than a tough, critical look at anything.

    Ariely’s main contribution was to specifically look at the impact of very very large monetary incentives, instead of the usual “Here undergrad, have $20 if you do this right.” So, contra your contention that they “transferred the experiment to India without any contextual adjustment whatsoever,” the whole point of transferring it to India was to provide a contextual adjustment: by moving to India, they were able to offer monetary incentives that translated to a maximum of six months of consumption for the average rural Indian. To do so in America would have been prohibitively expensive; moving to India tested the effect of relatively enormous financial incentives on performance–the kind of incentives faced by, say, investment bankers.

    Now, the dude got the experiment totally mixed around. But the idea that firms should pay people “enough money” so that people aren’t constantly worried about money–that is, worrying about how to make ends meet–doesn’t seem to surprising. If they pay less than that and people are stressed because they’re poor, then they get poorer performance. Sounds reasonable, and not surprising that what someone in America considers a measly chunk of change, would be a big chunk of change to someone in India. We don’t need to get into subjective ideas of worth when there is the objective reality that the average income in India is something like 7% the average income in the US.

    The question then: once people are at a level of relative comfort, income-wise, what do you do to motivate people to work harder? And in some ways his answer is: Maslow. Once people are doing okay in creature-comforts, they start responding more to intrinsic “This is a good cause!” type motivations that aren’t so meaningful when they are scraping together rent money.

    2. I’m not sure whether your anecdote about Mr. Esteva is meant to be taken approvingly, disapprovingly, both, neither, or some other combination, but: to answer his question, “Development for what?” I would say, the economic development that comes with the people of Mexico (or wherever) being able to produce more goods and services that other people are interested in buying, and using the proceeds to purchase better health, better food, more food, better housing, more vacations, internet access, and whatever else they want. Are neoliberal policies the ideal way of getting all this? Perhaps not–and certainly their implementation leaves a very great deal to be desired. But the long-term, ongoing, and steady stream of Mexican migrants to the US (and the corresponding one of Guatemalans to Mexico) suggests that there are, in fact, a great number of people who are interested in such “development”–even at the expense of uprooting to a not-entirely-welcoming country.

  2. I don’t want to respond in too much length before others have a chance to respond if they desire. But, I feel I should clarify a few points.

    First, is how the examples of India (with the experiment) and Mexico are linked. Both have been developed non-democratically because of past actions by the West. Both are forced to take part in such monetary incentive schemes whether in experiment-form or neoliberal economic structure-form.

    This leads to the second implicit point of the tensions between democracy and neoliberal economic policy. I do believe that development in a broad sense (technology) can improve people’s live. I personally love and am addicted to a lot of it. But, I also believe people from various regions should be able to choose it for themselves. This, in my opinion, is not the case. Most Mexican workers who travel “illegally” into the US to work do it because larger social structures have forced their hands whether culturally or materially (indeed, this process continues to undermine democratic action in their homeland thereby sustaining the status quo).

    Further, development has been and is extremely uneven. The people Mr. Esteva was representing in some sense are largely indigenous and are very poor in a material sense. Therefore, what is “development” to them? What has it ever done for them? Conversely, I believe Mr. Esteva would argue that at the least his people should have a say in what affects them. I am interested in his theory because it’s just so different from anything you’ll find almost anywhere else.

    All in all, I am very suspicious, as a post-structuralist of a kind, of universalizing sciences or policy.

    But, then again, my points may be too unclear or unsupported. What do you think?

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