Predictably irrational – Part I

Home Predictably irrational – Part I

Dan Ariely, the writer of the book that I’m pretty fascinated with at the moment, is a psychologist and behavioral economist. If there is one thing you should know about psychologists, it’s that they are extremely fond of experiments, because that allows them to remove a lot of environmental factors in human behavior. And given the number of animal experiments that were published, I’d consider them all animal lovers too, with the white rat leading the list of their favorite species. Dan however doesn’t have a rat, but he’s the proud owner of Jean-Paul, a quite intelligent parrot…

Being the animal lover that he is, Dan bought a pretty interesting toy for Jean-Paul: the Seeka Treat. (see picture)


The concept is simple: the owner of the bird can hide food in small holes between the moveable compartments in the Seeka Treat and puts the toy in the cage. The bird then has to move the different wooden parts of the Seeka Treat in order to get this food. The interesting part is that, even when in the animal has access to ‘free food’ on an easy accessible tray in the cage, it will in many cases prefer ‘working’ for it. This effect, coined “Contrafreeloading” by animal psychologist Glen Jensen (after research on a lot of white rats) contradicts with popular economical reasoning that states that organisms will choose maximization of benefits for the least possible effort.

Now in order to extrapolate this finding to us humans, Dan did a series of experiments. In one of them, he asked participants to build Lego structures for diminishing rewards (2$  for the first structure, 1,89$ for the second one,…) to see how much structures one would build. In one condition, every structure that was built by participants was stored in a box until the end of the experiment. In this condition, the work participants do seems meaningful. In the other condition however, the person leading the experiment started disassembling the first one while the participant was working on the second one, so that he could use the blocks again. Imagine that the work you do in your job gets destroyed in front of your eyes, over and over again. Does it surprise you that people in the first condition, where structures were kept, built on average 10 structures, and that those in the second, “meaningless condition” only built 7? And that those in the last condition rated the experiment significantly less enjoyable than those who at least had the illusion that their work was meaningful?

The learning?

Working for rewards is satisfying; however, even a job that people like can easily turn into a drag when it seems meaningless. Motivation and joy are function of meaning. In the current working life, one of the things people do is talking about their jobs and company, possibly online. Possibly at this very moment, while it isn’t even in their function description…

The call to action?

Show appreciation for the work people do, at any time. At any time. And don’t forget to appreciate all the brand building that your employees do. Facilitate and show appreciation. That is one of the essential pathways towards a Superstar Company.

Do you agree with the learnings I got out of this chapter? Do you think this is something you can (not) use in your company? I’d love to discuss this further, via @eliasveris on twitter or any other channel of your preference.