Money Honey

Oliver and I love listening to our favorite behavioral economist, Dan Ariely. I know, but trust me; it’s not as boring as it sounds.

He’s a professor at Duke who basically performs experiments to figure out all the weird little oddities of human behavior and then applies them to the real world (usually the financial markets).

He did this one study testing job satisfaction based on “acknowledgement.” The idea was to find out if people are happier and therefore more productive when their work is acknowledged, and if so, how much more productive.

In order to test this he had undergraduates complete a worksheet by circling pairs of letters on a diminishing pay scale. So for completing the first worksheet they would be paid, say, $1 and for completing the second they’d be paid $0.90 and so on until they wanted to stop. In the first condition people handed their work to a reader who briefly looked over the worksheets, nodded at the participant and placed it on a pile. In the second condition, the reader merely put the worksheet in the pile without looking at it or at the participant. In the third condition the reader immediately put their worksheet into a shredder.

If people were solely motivated by money, the people in the third condition would have completed the most worksheets, realizing that they didn’t even have to fill out the papers because no one was checking them. They could just earn free money. But of course the third group stopped the earliest.

The most surprising find of the study was that people in the second group stopped almost exactly at the same time as people in the third group. The upshot of this is that simply ignoring someone is virtually the same as shredding their work right before their eyes.

Ariely describes this as having your effort acknowledged, but really this just means having someone care about your work, and by extension, you. Ariely obviously applied this to the workplace, but it can be applied to every relationship we have. Consider the fact that students in a study making free money by completing easy worksheets have very little emotional charge attached to the scenario. And yet the people who were ignored were almost half as productive.

Think about how much more pronounced the effect would be in our personal lives. Think about what it does to someone emotionally to merely be ignored when they are really being ignored. Say a spouse helps take out the trash or makes an effort to spend more quality time with the family and that effort simply slides by without notice. Even if we don’t intend it, we are virtually ripping their gift to shreds (and ironically decreasing the likelihood that they would want to repeat a similar action in the future).

On the upside, in acknowledgement scenario, very little was required to boost the participants productivity. All that the experimenter did was give them a brief nod and look over their paper– all in all an effortless 10 second gesture. It’s an easy problem to fix if we’re simply aware of it. A simple, “I noticed you helped with the dishes. That was sweet and made my job easier, honey,” would suffice.

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