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Understanding the Essence of Meaning

Ted talk Oct 2012 by Dan Ariely - Behavioural Economist. What makes us feel good about our work?

Dan Ariely received a visit from an ex student of his and during their conversation the ex student detailed a depressing experience that had recently happened to him at the bank where he worked. He had been asked by his boss to create a PowerPoint presentation for a merger that was due to happen. For more than two weeks this chap put his heart and soul into the task. He stayed late at work everyday, compiled graphs and data, he was also really enjoying doing it. On completion he emailed the presentation to his boss and received a reply saying "good presentation but the merger has been cancelled". Feeling that his great efforts would never be seen by anyone it left the chap feeling deflated and quiet depressed.

Dan started to think about what kind of experiments he could devise to study 'the fruits of our labour' and came up with the following:

The first experiment he asked volunteers to build a Lego figure which he would pay them $3 to do so. When they completed it he took the built figure, placed it under his desk and asked if they would like to do another one but this time he would pay 30 cents less than before? Each time they completed he put the figure under his desk and ask the same again and each time reducing the amount of pay by 30 cents until the volunteer said that they had had enough. This was called the Meaningful Condition. Every participant knew that at the end of the day each item that they had built would be deconstructed, boxed back up and used in the future for another group and experiment.

The next batch of volunteers to try this experiment were told and offered exactly the same thing as the first but this time after they had completed their first Lego figure and were starting to work on their second, the examiner would break apart the one that they had just made until it was fully back to just the original pieces. If they agreed to make another after that one they were now given their broken down figure back to rebuild. This was called the Sisyphus Condition named after the Greek Mythology of Sisyphus - the king who was punished by Zeus to forever roll a boulder up a hill that when nearing the top of the hill the boulder would roll back down and he would have to start all over again. This was inspired by the story that Dan had heard from his ex student about his PowerPoint presentation.

The result of the Meaningful Condition was that the participants did more for less money as apposed to the Sisyphus Condition were they lost interest fast. It was also considered that some people just love Lego and some people really don't therefore you would speculate that the people who love Lego would build more for less money just for the joy of doing it, which was apparent in the results of the Meaningful Condition but them Lego lovers when participating in the Sisyphus Condition showed no coloration to this suggesting that watching their creations being broken down in front of their eyes just crushed any joy that they could obtain from the activity.

The next experiment was slightly different. The volunteers were given a sheet of paper with random letters printed on it and they were asked to find pairs of letters that were identical to each other. Again at the end of the task they were asked if they wanted to do another one for a reduced amount of pay again and again etc. There were three conditions applied this time:-

1) The volunteer put their name on each piece of paper and upon completion when they handed their work to the examiner he fully scanned his eyes over the whole page from top to bottom, said "aha" and then place the page on a pile of papers beside him.

2) The volunteer did not write their name and when completed they passed the page to the examiner but he did not look at it, instead he just place it on the pile of papers sat beside him.

3) The volunteer did not write their name and when completed they passed the page to the examiner who did not look at it he just put it straight into the shredder by the side of him, shredding the work in front of the volunteers eyes.

The results of this experiment showed that the work which was acknowledged by the examiner both visually and verbally got the best results i.e. the volunteers completed more papers. The work that got shredded resulted in the volunteers losing interest fast and didn't want to continue the task - which was the same result that came from the Lego experiment but the work that was ignored i.e. the examiner didn't look at it, scored nearly as bad as the shredding. The bad news of this is that ignoring the performance of people is nearly as bad as shredding their work in front of their eyes.

In between these two experiments Dan was asked to give a talk to an innovation and creation team of 200 engineers from a big software company in Seattle. Unbeknown to Dan a week before, this team had received news from their CEO that their project had been cancelled so when Dan spoke to them about his recent Lego experiment the whole room replied that they all felt like this is what had just happened to them. Dan asked by a show of hands who now as a result of this happening to them come in later to work than they did before? The whole room raised their hands. Dan asked who now goes home earlier than they used to? The whole room raised their hands. The result of this talk was that the CEO had no understanding of the value of Meaning.

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