A Pizza vs. Money Question of the Day

Would you work hardest for pizza, money, or a text message from your boss?

Photo credit: Malcolm Tredinnick, CC BY 2.0.

This week in “science,” we learn that workers apparently prefer pizza to money:

I’m already putting “science” in terrifying quotes because when you follow the Fox News story past its headline and back to the source, you learn that the people studied preferred pizza to money, but they also preferred compliments to pizza:

All told, the compliment proved to be the very best motivator, though [Dan Ariely] thinks that if the experiment had gone the way he wanted, pizza would’ve fared best.

Okay. Before your boss starts handing out pizza instead of cash bonuses, let’s look at what actually went on here.

  1. Behavioral economist and author Dan Ariely ran an experiment with Israeli workers.
  2. The experiment involved telling workers that they would receive a reward if they assembled a specific number of computer chips per day: either cash, a text message from their boss that read “well done!”, or pizza. Some workers were not offered the reward, so they could serve as the control group.
  3. At the start of the experiment, the workers who were promised pizza were the most productive of the four groups (pizza, money, compliment, control).
  4. By the end of the experiment, the workers who were promised a compliment had been the most productive of the four groups.
  5. Therefore, people are willing to work hardest for compliments, then pizza, then money.

First of all, what kind of incentive is “if you assemble X computer chips, you’ll get a text message from your boss?” Compliments are the most powerful when they are unexpected and spontaneous. It’s the idea that your boss is noticing your hard work, not sending out a canned text because you met an expectation.

Second of all, here’s the most important result of the experiment, IMHO:

Over the course of the workweek, the output of the workers in these conditions slowed a little, becoming by the end of the week closer to the productivity level of the control group (but still better than no incentive).

NYMag could have written the headline as “Incentives improve productivity a little bit, but people can only keep up that productivity for so long, and by the end of the week they’ll still only be working at the pace of the control group, that is to say the average human pace, the amount of work that can typically be done in a day by a human, please stop trying to get us to exceed that rate.”

There’s one more piece this story leaves out, and I may have to read Ariely’s upcoming book Payoff: The Hidden Logic that Shapes Our Motivations to learn it: how many workers met the criteria? How many of them assembled the required amount of computer chips?

If money, pizza, and compliments each motivated workers to assemble a specific number of computer chips, and the workers did in fact assemble those chips, then I’d say each of those items is an effective motivating tool. If the pizza group and the compliments group went slightly above and beyond, well… that doesn’t mean money isn’t an effective motivator. It just means, as in many workplaces, that the people in charge really want you to exceed expectations.

So, the question of the day: are you more motivated by pizza, compliments, or money? If you were a worker in this study, do you think it would have mattered what reward you got, or would you have assembled whatever number of chips the boss said just because it was a request that came from the boss?