Acknowledged, Ignored, or Shredded

The experiments described in The Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization research paper are both quite simple. Yet they capture fundamental truths about how we relate to the work we do.

Imagine you’re one of the MIT students who volunteered for the experiments described below. What would you do?

Experiment #1

In the first experiment, you’re handed a sheet of paper filled with typed letters and paid 55 cents for finding ten instances of two consecutive ones. You’ll be paid 50 cents for analyzing a second page, 45 cents for a third page, and so on. Participants perform the task under one of three conditions. (Subjects didn’t know about the other conditions or their labels.) 

In the Acknowledged condition, the subjects were asked to write their name on each sheet prior to starting the task. The instructions explained that after completing the task, they would hand the sheet over to the experimenter who would examine it and file it away in a folder. 

In the Ignored condition, the subjects were not instructed to write their name on the sheets, and in fact none did so. Moreover, the instructions explained that, after the subject completed the task, the experimenter would place the sheet on a high stack of papers. The experimenter in fact did so without examining the completed sheets. 

The Shredded condition was the same as the Ignored condition except that the instructions explained that the completed sheets would be immediately put through a paper shredder. As the subjects turned in the sheets, the experimenter shredded them without a glance.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Experiment #2 

In the second experiment, you are asked to build a kind of Lego figure called a Bionicle. You’re paid $2 for the first one you build, eleven cents less for the next one, and so on down to 2 cents for the twentieth Bionicle and beyond. In this experiment, there are two conditions.

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk. 

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Results

You can readily guess that the MIT students did more work if they were in the Acknowledged or Meaningful conditions. What most people can’t guess is just how much more work. “Almost half of the subjects in the Acknowledged condition were willing to work until the wage dropped all the way to zero,” far out-pacing the other students. Subjects in the Meaningful condition built 40% more Bionicles, and also built them faster. The small signals of recognition and purpose made a significant difference. 

One of the researchers, Dan Ariely, describes the results in a popular TED talk titled “What makes us feel good about our work?” Recognition and purpose needn’t be lofty ideals, he said. They can be as simple as someone acknowledging your work and making it possible for you to see that you contribute, even tangentially, to some objective. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had bosses who have done the equivalent of ignoring or shredding your work. What do you do when that happens? Do you hope they’ll change, or pray for a new boss? How do you feel?

Whenever I found myself working in the “pointless” condition, I would be miserable. Then I learned how to make my work visible so others could see it and use it. That made it possible for me to gain a feeling of recognition and purpose from anywhere, from anyone. It made my work better and made me happier.

“Identity, pride, and meaning are all left out from standard models of labor supply,” the researchers said, “but ignoring the dimension of meaning may be quite expensive, for employer and for society.”

What conditions are you working in? What will you do about it?

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