I love working with business owners and employees at my hypnotherapy and coaching practice in both London and Cornwall. One of the things that often surprises them is the psychology of motivation.
The Candle Problem is a experiment created by Carl Dunker in 1945 and has been used by a whole host of psychologists in a range of studies since. You are given a candle, some matches and box of drawing pins. You are asked to find a way of attaching the candle to the wall so when lit it doesn’t drip on to the table.
The average time for someone to complete this is 5-10 minutes.
Some people try and melt the wax and glue the candle to the wall. Doesn’t work. Others try and use the drawing pins to pin the candle to the wall. Doesn’t work. The solution is to empty the drawing pins out of the box and pin the box to the wall and use that as a holder for the candle.
The solution can appear quite obvious when you see it. It is designed to overcome something that is called ‘functional fixedness’ where you see the box holding the drawing pin’s function as ‘fixed’ i.e. it is to contain the drawing pins rather than another object you can use to solve the problem.
In the 1960’s psychologist Sam Glucksberg took two groups of people and asked them to solve this problem. One group were told they are being timed to calculate average times. The other group was told that if they are in the top 20% of quickest times they got $5, if they are the fastest they got $20 (quite a sizeable sum for five minutes work in the 1960’s!).
So how much faster did the incentivised group solve the problem?
On average over 3½ minutes…slower.
But that’s not how life and business works, is it? Surely if you want to improve someone’s performance, focus them, you reward them with incentives and bonuses right? Large commission rates means more sales, performance related pay motivates people to operate at their highest level. Sticker charts entice children to change a particular behaviour. Doesn’t it? This is research clearly shows that no, it can do the opposite to what we think.
This study is not a one-off. Over 100 studies over a period of 40 years re-enforce the fact that if a task requires some thought, creativity and cognitive skills, rewarding someone on the basis ‘if you do X you will get Y’ either doesn’t work or actually does harm.
Amongst other things, rewards diminish creativity, prevent risk taking and lower performance. They can also rupture relationships and can be addictive. The focus moves to the rewards and away from the task.
This one of the most robust but ignored pieces of social science. There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business, the education system and society does.
In 2009 LSE carried out a study on performance related pay schemes and it demonstrated that they reduce the overall performance of the individual.
This is also my personal experience in nearly 20 years working for a corporate with a performance related pay scheme, even consistently being in the top rated band.
So if rewards and incentives (Extrinsic Motivation) can be damaging, what would be more helpful? The answer is to utilise their Intrinsic Motivation. There a few aspects of Intrinsic Motivation which include autonomy (having control over how work), mastery (learning and challenge), novelty (making things fun) and purpose (understanding the bigger picture behind tasks).
Perhaps you can begin to see where you are using carrot/stick type incentives and move towards utilising Intrinsic Motivation instead – even with yourself. How can you inject some more autonomy, novelty, challenge, learning and purpose in to an area of your life that you are struggling with motivation?