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Psychologist Barry Schwartz on What Motivates Us to Work, Why Incentives Fail, and How Our Ideas About Human Nature Shape Who We Become

Psychologist Barry Schwartz on What Motivates Us to Work, Why Incentives Fail, and How Our Ideas About Human Nature Shape Who We Become

The organism we call culture — all of our art and literature and human thought — is in a constant symbiotic dance with human nature. Our culture both reflects who we are — our values, our hopes, our fears, our ideals — and shapes who we become by immersing us in its collectively agreed upon mythology, systematically perpetuating certain values and negating others. E.B. White knew this when he considered the responsibility of the writer and asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” It’s a perennial dialogue between our nature and what we come to believe is our nature, perhaps best captured by the physicist David Bohm in his 1977 Berkeley lecture: “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.”

In a particularly palpable manifestation of this symbiotic dance, the rise of workaholism and the toxic mythology of work/life balance have warped our understanding of why we work, what meaningful labor means, and how we can avail ourselves of the true rewards of our vocation. That’s what psychologist Barry Schwartz explores in Why We Work (public library) — an inquiry into the diverse sources of satisfaction in work, the demoralizing effect of incentives, and how we can reimagine work culture to enlarge the human spirit rather than contract it.

Illustration by Gus Gordon from ‘Herman and Rosie.’ Click image for more.

Schwartz, who has previously studied the paradox of choice and the moral machinery of practical wisdom — casts the issue against the staggering statistic that, according to a recent Gallup study of 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries, only 13% of people feel engaged and fulfilled by their jobs. He writes:

Work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment for nearly 90 percent of the world’s workers. Think of the social, emotional, and perhaps even economic waste that this statistic represents. Ninety percent of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be.

This, of course, is far from new — one need only look at that marvelous 1949 manifesto for avoiding work to appreciate that enduring frustration. But Schwartz’s central point is that, far from a necessary sunk cost of making a living, this profound dissatisfaction with work is one of our own making — the product of how we’ve designed our institutions, how that design has shaped our core beliefs, and how those beliefs in turn shape who we become. By examining the dichotomy between discovery and invention — one I think about often — Schwartz argues that human nature is something we actively invent:

Does the market cater to consumer desires or does it create consumer desires? Do the media cater to people’s tastes in news and entertainment or do the media create those tastes? We are all accustomed to the difficulties surrounding discussion of these issues in modern society, and we may all have fairly strong opinions about the “cater/create” debate. Questions of just this sort are all around us, and finding the right answer to them can have profound consequences for the future of society. In a sense, the distinction I’m making is between discovery and invention. Discoveries tell us things about how the world works. Inventions use those discoveries to create objects or processes that make the world work differently. The discovery of pathogens leads to the invention of antibiotics. The discovery of nuclear energy leads to bombs, power plants, and medical procedures. The discovery of the genome leads, or will lead, to untold changes in almost every part of our lives. Of course, discoveries also change the world, by changing how we understand it and live in it, but they rarely change the world by themselves.

Illustration from ‘Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35.’ Click image for more.

A crucial difference between discovery and invention, Schwartz points out, is the moral dimension:

When a scientist, or anyone else, discovers something, it doesn’t occur to us to ask whether that discovery should exist. In other words, though discoveries often have moral implications, they do not, by themselves, have moral dimensions. If someone were to suggest that the Higgs boson shouldn’t exist, we’d wonder what mind-altering substance he’d ingested. Inventions, in contrast, are a whole other story. Inventions characteristically have moral dimensions. We routinely ask whether they should exist. We wonder what’s good (life improving) about them, and what the drawbacks are. We debate whether their wide distribution should go forward, and if so, with what kind of regulation.

This moral aspect of inventions renders them what Schwartz calls “idea-technologies” that modulate our behavior:

Social science has created a “technology” of ideas about human nature… In addition to creating things, science creates concepts, ways of understanding the world and our place in it, that have an enormous effect on how we think and act. If we understand birth defects as acts of God, we pray. If we understand them as acts of chance, we grit our teeth and roll the dice. If we understand them as the product of prenatal neglect, we take better care of pregnant women.

In a sentiment that echoes David Bohm’s memorable words about the interplay of our beliefs and our reality, Schwartz argues that the idea-technology of human nature is more of an invention than a discovery — something that calls for great vigilance over the ideas to which we subscribe:

If we understand the concept of “technology” broadly, as the use of human intelligence to create objects or processes that change the conditions of daily life, then it seems clear that ideas are no less products of technology than are computers. However, there are two things about idea technology that make it different from most “thing technology.” First, because ideas are not objects, to be seen, purchased, and touched, they can suffuse through the culture and have profound effects on people before they are even noticed. Second, ideas, unlike things, can have profound effects on people even if the ideas are false… False ideas can affect how people act, just as long as people believe them… Because idea technology often goes unnoticed, and because it can have profound effects even when it’s false — when it is ideology — it is in some respects more profound in its influence than the thing technology whose effects people are so accustomed to worrying about.


Good data drive out bad theories. But there’s a crucial difference between theories about planets, atoms, genes, and diseases and theories about at least some aspects of human nature. Planets don’t care what scientists say about their behavior. They move around the sun with complete indifference to how physicists and astronomers theorize about them. Genes are indifferent to our theories about them also. But this is not true of people. Theories about human nature can actually produce changes in how people behave. What this means is that a theory that is false can become true simply by people believing it’s true. The result is that, instead of good data driving out bad data and theories, bad data change social practices until the data become good data, and the theories are validated.

Illustration by Vahram Muratyan from ‘About Time.’ Click image for more.

Our ideas about what motivates people to work, Schwartz cautions, have shaped the nature of the workplace in unfortunate ways — particularly when it comes to the ideology of incentives and the carrots-and-sticks approach to reward and punishment. (Daniel Pink has written about this in his excellent look at the psychology of motivation.) Schwartz illustrates this with a striking example of how incentives fail to motivate people to do the right thing and, in fact, can achieve the very opposite:

An Israeli day care center was faced with a problem: more and more parents were coming late — after closing — to pick up their kids. Since the day care center couldn’t very well lock up and leave toddlers sitting alone on the steps awaiting their errant parents, they were stuck. Exhortation to come on time did not have the desired effect, so the day care center resorted to a fine for lateness. Now parents would have two reasons to come on time. It was their obligation, and they would pay a fine for failing to meet that obligation.

But the day care center was in for a surprise. When they imposed a fine for lateness, lateness increased. Prior to the imposition of a fine, about 25 percent of parents came late. When the fine was introduced, the percentage of latecomers rose, to about 33 percent. As the fines continued, the percentage of latecomers continued to go up, reaching about 40 percent by the sixteenth week.

This, Schwartz notes, stemmed from how the penalty policy muddled the essential difference between a fine and a price:

A price is what you pay for a service or a good. It’s an exchange between willing participants. A fine, in contrast, is punishment for a transgression. A $25 parking ticket is not the price for parking; it’s the penalty for parking where parking is not permitted. But there is nothing to stop people from interpreting a fine as a price. If it costs you $30 to park in a downtown garage, you might well calculate that it’s cheaper to park illegally on the street. Any notion of moral sanction is lost. You’re not doing the “wrong” thing; you’re doing the economical thing. And to get you to stop, we’ll have to make the fine (price) for parking illegally higher than the price for parking in a garage.

That’s exactly what happened in the day care centers. Prior to the imposition of fines, parents knew it was wrong to come late. Obviously, many of the parents did not regard this transgression as serious enough to get them to stop committing it, but there was no question that what they were doing was wrong. But when fines were introduced, the moral dimension of their behavior disappeared. It was now a straightforward financial calculation. “They’re giving me permission to be late. Is it worth $25? Is that a good price to pay to let me stay in the office a few minutes longer? Sure is!” The fine allows parents to reframe their behavior as an exchange of a fee (the “fine”) for a “service” (fifteen minutes of extra care). The fines demoralized what had previously been a moral act. And this is what incentives can do in general. They can change the question in people’s minds from “Is this right or wrong?” to “Is this worth the price?”

Once lost, this moral dimension is hard to recover. When, near the end of the study, the fines for lateness were discontinued, lateness became even more prevalent. By the end of the study, the incidence of lateness had almost doubled. It’s as though the introduction of fines permanently altered parents’ framing of the situation from a moral transaction to an economic one. When the fines were lifted, lateness simply became a better deal.

Illustration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

What Schwartz suggests, essentially, is that the best motivation is predicated not on reward and punishment but on what Adam Smith called the “impartial spectator” — an imaginary figure who evaluates the morality of our actions objectively and to whom we hold ourselves accountable. Once parents were given a second, material reason to be on time, they were able to buy their way out of the first, moral one — the sense of duty to simply do the right thing under the watchful eye of the “impartial spectator.”

Schwartz writes:

When we lose confidence that people have the will to do the right thing, and we turn to incentives, we find that we get what we pay for.


There is really no substitute for the integrity that inspires people to do good work because they want to do good work. And the more we rely on incentives as substitutes for integrity, the more we will need to rely on them as substitutes for integrity. We may tell ourselves that all we’re doing with our incentives is taking advantage of what we know about human nature… But in fact, what we’re doing is changing human nature.

And we’re not merely changing it; we’re impoverishing it.

To cease impoverishing human nature and begin enriching it, Schwartz asserts, we need to radically revise our ideas about work and the larger ecosystem of our social institutions:

Human beings are not scorpions. People aren’t stuck being one way or another. But nor are they free to invent themselves without constraint. When we give shape to our social institutions — our schools, our communities and yes, our workplaces — we also shape human nature. Thus, human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design. If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.

How we can begin to do this is what Schwartz explores in the remainder of the altogether excellent Why We Work, part of the TED Books series that gave us Pico Iyer on the art of stillness and Hannah Fry on the mathematics of lasting relationships.

Complement it with German philosopher Josef Pieper’s timeless 1948 treatise on how to reclaim our human dignity in the age of workaholism, Parker Palmer on how to transform purpose into vocation, and David Whyte on how to break the tyranny of “work/life balance.”

Published October 5, 2015




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