In The Upside of Irrationality, behavioral economist Dan Ariely describes an experiment he conducted to measure how the meaning of work impacts the motivation for work. In the experiment, he recruited Harvard students who loved Legos to build Lego Bionicle robots and paid them decreasing amounts for each additional robot built; the first completed robot earned $2, the next $0.11 less ($1.89), the third another $0.11 less ($1.78), and so forth. The research assistant informed the participant that at some point, the Legos would have to be dismantled for the next participant. In one group, the lab had numerous Lego kits available. The assistant would place each of the student’s completed robots on the desk in front of him, and the Lego robots would accumulate on the desk over the session. In the second group, only two kits were available, so as a participant started on the next robot, the assistant would immediately dismantle the previous robot in the event the participant wanted to continue building. Participants in the first group who didn’t see their work immediately dismantled built significantly more robots (10.6 on average) than those in the second group (7.2 on average). 1 Meaningful work led to happier participants, generated more output, and compensated for lower pay.
The experiment teaches a lesson on the importance of meaningful work: people lose motivation with work that they perceive to be pointless.