On Motivation, and the 47%

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has a thought experiment on his blog today. He wonders: what would we do if there was a drug that could increase human motivation? Adams writes:

As a practical matter, it might be cheaper and easier to tweak the motivational chemistry of people who are in bad circumstances instead of trying to fix their circumstances and hope that’s enough to stimulate their natural motivation.

I don’t want to pick on Adams’ essay too much, because it’s a thought experiment, not a serious proposal. But on the other hand, it’s an instructive example to use, because it shows some of the mistaken assumptions we make about human motivation.

Yesterday, I said that I wanted to read Clayton Christensen’s new book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” So I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle, and began reading. And coincidentally enough, Christensen spends an early chapter talking about the latest scientific understanding of human motivation, specifically in regards to the workplace.

The basic misunderstanding that Christensen points out is that most people assume there is a single scale of job satisfaction that looks something like this:


But it turns out job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are two completely unrelated things. You can be both satisfied and dissatisfied with your job at the same time. There are actually two scales, not one, that look more like this:

absence of dissatisfaction


absence of satisfaction

The reason for this, Christensen explains, is that dissatisfaction comes from external influences. Things that cause dissatisfaction are things like an unsafe work environment, not having the right tools to do the job, bad relationships with colleagues and managers, and low or unfair pay. Fredrick Herzberg, a leading researcher on motivation theory, called these things “hygiene factors”.

An impure, or “unhygienic”, work environment makes us dissatisfied. But a pure environment doesn’t make us satisfied. Satisfaction is internal, and it arises from the relationship between the individual and the work. Do you have responsibility over what happens? Is the work challenging? Are you improving? Is the work important? As I mentioned the other day, Daniel Pink calls these motivators “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”

So there’s a function in the brain where “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” are the inputs, and motivation is the output. Can you replace that input with a chemical, and still get motivation as an output? That seems unlikely to me. The input isn’t a mere chemical, it’s a complex set of biological wires.

But whatever — that’s science fiction. What matters is this: even if you could fix motivation with a pill, you still wouldn’t have fixed demotivation, because that’s a completely separate thing. If you want to lift people up, you can’t just make them or tell them or teach them to be more motivated. That’s only half the equation. You also have to fix the external factors that are demotivating them at the same time.

And maybe if we had a two-party system that worked, the party that wants to tell people that they should be more internally self-motivated could work together with the party that wants to fix all the external factors that demotivate people, and we could actually get something done around here.

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