Money, Motivation, and Social Organization

22:37 Tue 18 May 2010
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This animated excerpt from a lecture by Dan Pink on the nature of motivation is absolutely worth watching:

In some ways it doesn’t surprise me much to find that people are motivated less by money once beyond a certain income threshold, and more by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It’s great to have empirical verification that this holds true for a lot of people, and not just certain privileged groups, but it’s not particularly counterintuitive or shocking.

The post has a certain inspirational value, viewed individualistically, and it’s valuable for that reason. Anything that encourages us to pursue autonomy, mastery, and purpose seems like a good thing, and this clip had that effect on me.

That being said, I wonder if Pink is really exploring the implications. I haven’t read the book, but it seems like he’s concentrating more on smaller-scale aspects, such as how this can be used by companies. If it helps companies, great, and if that further helps their employees to be happier, fantastic. That being said, basic capitalism is about extracting more value from labor than you’re paying for it, so you could cynically read this as a way for companies and/or managers to improve profits. (Not a new idea, and I certainly think that many of the campus-style tech companies already engage in this approach.)

More interesting to me is the possibility that we’re seeing a shift away from the company as a locus of social control. The denial of autonomy through “scientific management”, and the fact that lower-level employees have been subject to fairly outrageous authoritarian scrutiny for as long as there have been companies, is not coincidental. In many respects workplaces, by their nature gatherings of large groups of people, are potentially destabilizing environments, and the controllers of those environments have always tended towards rigidity and stricture.

Dress codes, petty timekeeping, interference in worker’s lives outside the workplace, enforcement of “moral codes” (particularly regarding sexuality)—these have all been common, and indeed remain so except for a highly privileged very few. The studies that Pink cites, however, and some workplace trends, make it possible that companies might find it increasingly tempting to give up a certain amount of control over their employees in return for higher profits.

This is by no means a given, regardless of what economists might claim—just as workers don’t always focus purely on money, companies and their executives and managers will not always do what’s best for the company or for themselves in economic terms.

However, if it did happen on a large scale, it could have interesting side effects, even if it did absolutely nothing to alter the economic balance in society. People would, I think, have higher expectations regarding how they should be treated, and in the long term I suspect this would lead to more autonomy generally, not just at work—clearly a good thing. The extent to which various existing powers and power structures would let this happen is open to question, but there is a chance that the profit motive would essentially force them to.

There are certainly other questions raised by these studies, such as: what do they say about the organization of our societies? This question is less important in terms of immediate practicalities, but more important in terms of, well, how things should be. If more or less everyone wants to pursue autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and furthermore more or less everyone is more productive except at the most mundane tasks if allowed to pursue said goals, then why don’t we make sure that everyone can?

This is a rhetorical question, in a sense; the answer is because existing power structures won’t allow it. There are other “answers” that obscure the real one, such as “somebody has to do the shit work”, which doesn’t hold up as it’s clear that society would be better off if such work were shared to a greater extent; or “people couldn’t handle the freedom”, which is best addressed by noting that whoever makes that claim is always referring to other people; and so on. It’s definitely a question worth posing, because this illuminates certain unpleasant facts about the functions of power in our society. Those studies are useful because they more or less kill off economic arguments for the existing arrangements.

As a side note, one has to seriously question the structure of schools given the findings of the cited studies, also. Traditional schooling isn’t too good at helping students pursue autonomy; purpose is also questionable; mastery, well, maybe, but not necessarily the mastery the student actually wants.

As more of these studies in behavior and behavioral economics come out, they seem to seriously undermine the theoretical underpinnings of the status quo. Another example was the “power corrupts” study that made it very clear that those given power will very likely abuse it while also feeling they had every right to do so. I’ve always tended to regard theories supporting the status quo as mere updates of “the divine right of kings”, and that bias seems borne out by the evidence[1]. Nevertheless, the evidence is increasingly compelling that we should be organizing our society very differently. Whether or not that makes anything more likely to change for the better is left for the reader to judge.

[1] Although I should of course be wary of reading any evidence as supporting my own preconceived notions, since I’m predisposed to view all evidence I come across as confirming my beliefs, and so is everyone else.

One Response to “Money, Motivation, and Social Organization”

  1. garret Says:

    Has this got anything to do with your haircut?

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