Legos and motivation

At my workplace, we received recently a survey to measure our engagement at work. We were asked to evaluate different aspects of our daily job, such as the work atmosphere, productivity, performance…, and each question would accumulate points for our working team. For those items in which our team scored less, we were required to follow up with actions for improvement. The survey has been outsourced to an external party and the whole process is taking several working hours from each of us. Why our employer is taking such an effort and is spending so much money in evaluating our engagement? Of course, this should eventually lead to more motivated people and thus better performance at work. However, why such a hassle? To be practical here, distribute the costs of this survey as extra payment in the salaries and motivated employees will flourish in the company. Or will not? Here is the question, what does bring us motivation and willingness to perform in our jobs?

The underlying and extended thought that money equals motivation turns to be false. Money is certainly one contributor to the equation, but there are other factors that also play a role in shaping our motivation. For example, pride, helping others or purpose can be important drivers for many of us. In particular, the sense of purpose in our work plays a crucial role as incentive. A couple of weeks ago, a friend talked to me very upset about a situation in her job. For several weeks, she had been working in a deliverable, and when it was almost finished, an email from her colleague indicated that it was not needed anymore. Basically, all her output from the previous weeks could be directly discarded. My friend was completely demotivated. But why such a big disappointment? If we think about it, the email from her colleague did not impact her activity in the previous weeks at all. During all that time, she had worked as usual in the given assignment, she had done the usual number of hours, and she had actually enjoyed the task. After the notification, however, the outcome of her work suddenly lots its purpose, and the very fact of missing the meaning annihilated her motivation.

To measure the relation between purpose and motivation, Dan Ariely, Emir Kamenica, and Drazen Prelec 1 conducted a number of experiments in a lab environment, where subjects were tested on their willingness to continue working on a certain task by manipulating its perceived meaning.

In the first round of experiments, the subjects were given a sheet of paper with sequences of letters, where they were asked to find ten instances of two consecutive letters (e.g. “ss”). When finished, they should hand the sheet to the experimenter for which they would get paid an amount of money. The subject could continue with subsequent sheets, but the paid rate per sheet would decrease every time. The process would continue until the subject decided to stop.

This task was presented in three different conditions, called by the experimenters Acknowledged, Ignored and Shredded conditions. In the Acknowledged condition, the subjects would write their names on the paper and, at the end, the experimenter would examine their work and file it. In the Ignored condition, the experimenter would take the sheet and put it on a pile of paper without looking at it. Finally, in the Shredded condition, the experimenter would directly place the sheet through a paper shredder without even looking at it.

The experimenters measured the number of sheets that the subjects were willing to take before deciding to stop. The results are shown in Figure 1 for each of the conditions.

Figure 1. Number of sheets completed in the Acknowledged, Ignored, and Shredded conditions | Credit: Ariely et al (2008)
Figure 1. Number of sheets completed in the Acknowledged, Ignored, and Shredded conditions | Credit: Ariely et al (2008)

The results showed that there is a significant difference between the Acknowledged and the other two conditions. While the subjects would complete an average of 9.03 sheets in the Acknowledged condition, they would only take an average of 6.77 and 6.34 for the Ignored and Shredded conditions, respectively.

These results indicate that the mere act of acknowledging the results by the experimenter, even by just a fast scan through the sheet before piling it on the desk, was enough to induce in the subject the motivation to further continue with this repetitive task. When ignoring or destroying the sheets, the subjects would stop with the task as soon as the money started to decrease. Note here that the Shredded condition offered the possibility of easy money by cheating the answer, since nobody would check on it. Still, the willingness to continue in the Shredded condition was less than in the Acknowledged condition.

The results also show that there is no significant difference between the Ignored and Shredded conditions or, in other words, ignoring the task shows to be almost equivalent to destroying it. On the one side, it seems to be relatively easy to boost motivation with just a simple recognition of the work, but on the other side, it turns out that a lack of attention at somebody’s work has devastating effects for the motivation.

In the same article, the authors propose a second experiment, with other type of task, where the subjects are asked to assemble a Bionicle (toys of Lego, shown in Figure 2). Following the same method as in the previous experiment, the subject was paid per Bionicle assembled, and the rate per piece would decrease for each subsequent one that they decided to build. The experimenters measured the total number of Bionicles assembled before the subject would choose to stop.

In this experiment, the so called Meaningful and Sisyphus conditions were used. In the Meaningful condition, the Bionicles assembled by the subjects were collected on the side by the experimenter. In the Sisyphus condition, instead, there were Lego pieces only for two figures: when the subject would start with the second Bionicle, the experimenter would disassemble in front of him the first one, and use the pieces for the next assembly. The same process would repeat in the rest of the experiment. The Sisyphus conditioned received its name in relation to Sisyphus, a character of the Greek mythology. According to the myth, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to eternally roll a rock to the top of a hill, from where it would fall back again. This setup of cyclical condition of a task is the ultimate example of making a vain effort, and of perceiving the work as with no purpose at all.

The results showed an average of 10.6 and of 7.2 Bionicles built in the Meaningful and Sisyphus conditions respectively. The authors also measured the productivity in both cases, by counting the time taken to build the Bionicles. Not only the Meaningful condition results in more number of Bionicles, but also the subjects took shorter time per piece than in the Sisyphus condition.

According to the authors, meaning derives, at least in part, from the connections between work and purpose. Even an insignificant purpose for the person, defines a radical different motivation than a situation with no purpose at all. We all have the intuition that meaning is an ingredient to drive our willingness for work. However, the common believe that money boosts motivation underlies the current “bonus culture” in the companies, where money is offered to the employee as the incentive for performance and motivation improvement. The result of this experiment proves that motivation is not uniquely driven by money but also by meaning, even for the simplest tasks. Employers should probably rethink their strategies and recognize that meaning is an essential factor that contributes to a better productivity and motivation at work.


  1. Ariely, D., Kamenica, E., & Prelec, D. (2008). Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 67 (3-4), 671-677 DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2008.01.004

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