It’s likely very easy for you to explain your motivations for going to work. David McRaney is not sure he believes you.

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Why do you work where you work? I mean, specifically, why do you do whatever it is that you do for a living?

I'm pretty sure that you can answer this question. The average person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, spends between 11 and 15 years of his or her life at work. On the high end, that's about a fifth of your time on Earth as a person capable of enjoying pumpkin pie and movies about robots. That's a lot of time spent doing something for reasons unknown, so I doubt you would lift your shoulders and offer up open palms of confusion when it comes to this question. I'm just not so sure that the answer you come up with will be correct.

You probably know all about intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards and the other behavioral motivations like your basic drives for food, sex, and social acceptance as well as the pursuit of pleasure over pain and the quest for your other emotional needs. You know that intrinsic rewards satisfy these desires directly, while extrinsic rewards are usually tokens you can later trade for satisfaction. So, knowing all of this, it's likely very easy for you to explain your motivations for attending all those meetings and answering all those emails before putting on all those shoes after shaving all the those places before commuting all those miles. Still, I'm not sure I believe you.

Two of my favorite studies in psychology illustrate why I'm a bit skeptical about your justification for your actions – the story you tell yourself and others when wondering why you do what you do.

In one experiment, Leon Festinger and his colleagues brought college students into a room where those students, one at a time, sat across from a scientist in a lab coat who took notes while holding a stopwatch. The researcher asked these students to place wooden spools on a serving tray until it could hold no more, and then take them all back off again. After a while, the same people moved on to a second task in which they rotated a wooden peg round and round a quarter-turn at a time. Altogether, the students spent one incredibly boring hour doing mindless tasks, and after it was all over the scientist asked if the student in each run of the experiment would, before leaving, tell the next person waiting to do those same tasks that the experiment overall was fun and interesting. Every student did, and then, as a final task, each student was asked to write a brief essay explaining how he truly felt. The students didn't know they had been divided into two groups. Some students had received the equivalent of about $8 before the experiment began, and the others received what would be about $150 in today's money. Even though every other part of the experiment was identical, the difference in pay completely changed what the students wrote in those essays. The $150 group said the experiment was awful and tedious, something they would rather not do again. The $8 group said it was actually kind of neat, meditative and relaxing, and kind of fun when you think about it. Why the difference? Festinger said the two groups looked back on their actions and felt icky about lying. There was no congruence between what they had done and what they had said to the stranger, so to come into congruence they needed some sort of justification they could plug into their narratives. One group had $150 as justification, and so they were free to be honest with themselves. They did it for the money. They lied. The task was terrible. The other group didn't have such an easy way out of those bad feelings, so they reframed the experience. I wouldn't lie for a measly $8, each one thought. It was sort of pleasant really, so actually I didn't lie after all. Two realities formed in two groups of people, and the only difference was how much compensation they received.

The other experiment was conducted by Mark Lepper, Daniel Greene and Richard Nisbett. They went to a preschool and observed children playing during free time. They noted which children tended to be most interested in art supplies – drawing, coloring, and painting – and then divided those children into three groups. Group A was told that over the next three days every time they chose an art activity during free time they would receive a heap of praise and a certificate of achievement. Group B wasn't told this ahead of time, but when they chose to draw, paint, or color, they were surprised with the award and the praise just like group A. Group C was allowed to just keep playing as usual, no rewards. After the observation the scientists waited three weeks and then returned to measure how often each of the children in the three groups were now choosing art activities on his or her own. Upon return, they found that groups B and C were no different than before, but children in Group A were now significantly less likely to play with the art supplies than they were before the experiment began. The researchers explained that even though the activities were exactly the same for all three groups both before and after, only group A had reframed the experience to now be about rewards. They saw themselves as painting for praise, drawing for the sake of a payment. It was work. Even with those incentives no longer in place, the story some preschoolers told themselves had been tainted while the story for the children in the other groups had not.

Psychologists call these two phenomenon insufficient justification and overjustification, two extremes on the spectrum of internal storytelling. In one scenario a lack of an extrinsic reward, cash for lying, led to the invention of an intrinsic one that rewrote the entire experience. In the other scenario, a new way of looking at a beloved activity robbed children of an intrinsic reward, the joy of creation, and replaced it with an extrinsic one, pay for play. In both experiments, the brains of the people involved adopted new behaviors and perspectives without them knowing it.

That's why I'm not sure you know why you do the work that you do. Rewards, both intrinsic and extrinsic, can scramble our narratives and justifications, and so the stories we tell ourselves can become weird fictions that keep us going, not that this is a bad thing. It's just that we tend to believe we have access to the motivations behind our actions, and we tend to believe we know the source of our emotions and drives, but the truth is that we often do not have access to this information despite how easy it seems to come up with rational explanations as if we did.

This presents a problem for employers who want to build better workplaces and employees who want to enjoy their 11 to 15 years of life working in those workplaces. If people don't know what drives them, and employers don't know how to incentivize people to be more engaged, and overall we have a terrible grasp of how to be fulfilled and happy in our work, yet everyone kind of thinks they know what they are doing even though they don't, then what should we be doing instead? Well, the good news is that this whole system of rewards, incentives, motivations, and related phenomena has been studied for long enough that psychology and neuroscience have some practical, actionable advice for workplaces and individuals when it comes to harnessing our motivations and drives.

Our guest in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast is Daniel Pink, author of the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and the host of the new National Geographic show Crowd Control. In Drive, Pink writes about how many businesses and institutions depend on folklore instead of science to encourage people to come to work and be creative. He explains that the greatest incentives, once people are paid a decent wage, are autonomy, mastery, and purpose – intrinsic rewards that workplaces can easily offer if they choose to change the way they incentivize employees. In Crowd Control, Pink explores how, by paying attention to what science tells us truly motivates people, we can change the way we do things from giving out speeding tickets to managing baggage claims at airports so that we alter people's behavior for the benefit of everyone. In the interview Pink details what he's learned from both projects when it comes to what truly motivates us.

After the interview, I discuss a news story about delayed acting out to changes in the workplace.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, You Are Now Less Dumb, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page.

Episode shownotes and subscription information: YANSS Podcast 037 – Why We Are Unaware that We Lack the Skill to Tell How Unskilled and Unaware We Are