The Surprising Truth of How We're Being Motivated

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


April 24, 2011

The Surprising Truth of How We're Being Motivated

In an article for the Atlantic, Matthew Stewart recounts the slightly sordid history of management, beginning at the turn of the last century with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efforts to improve the efficiency of steel workers. Taylor was an advocate of what he called scientific management, a doctrine that claimed to rely on empirical observation and rational calculation and rejected the traditions and customs that once governed work life. The problem, Stewart tells us, is that Taylor’s “scientific” experiments were deeply flawed, the data was fudged or in some cases missing completely, and his recommendations for improving efficiency often boiled down to platitudes: “Think harder! Work smarter! Buy a stopwatch! “

On Stewart’s account, contemporary management consultants continue these traditions that Taylor first laid down, and as a former consultant himself, he should know. But the more interesting fact about his background is that he has a Ph.D. in Philosophy, because it may explain why he’s not content to limit himself to rehearsing common criticisms of Taylorism, like the feeling that its obsession with numbers makes it blind to the softer, qualitative, human aspects of work. This is the kind of thing that the humanist side of management theory would say, preferring non-coercive methods of management like emphasizing teamwork, co-operation and flexibility and rejecting the supposed oppression of the time clock.

Stewart delivers his most blistering attacks on this vision of management: “All of that humanity—as anyone in my old firm could have told you—was just a more subtle form of bureaucratic control. It was a way of harnessing the workers’ sense of identity and well-being to the goals of the organization, an effort to get each worker to participate in an ever more refined form of her own enslavement.” Perhaps here Stewart is thinking of Spinoza’s question, also asked by Deleuze:  “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?”

The popularity of humanist management among ordinary workers who perceive it as liberating may be understood as denial - the image of the non-authoritarian face of the humanist boss who only exerts control behind the scenes allows us to avoid the reality that we’re being exploited. The vision of harmonious capitalism promoted by well-meaning reformers creates the appearance  (staged for the Big Other) of minimal distance from an authoritarian system. Management consultants also don’t like to think of themselves as bad guys who ruthlessly cut costs and eliminate jobs (even though they do), they also want to stage themselves for this gaze as somehow pro-labor.

One myth about humanist management that Stewart successfully dismantles is the idea that it is new. This notion is endlessly repeated by 1990s-era anti- hierarchical management gurus, but it turns out that most of these ideas were already present in 1920s management literature, which raises the question of why they felt that it was so important to convince people otherwise. I think this can’t be explained merely as a fad, a superficial marketing ploy, or dressing up an old theory to impress the suckers, because they’re appealing to the Marxist idea of overcoming old, oppressive forms of social organization. Managers who came of age in the 60s want to think of themselves as more than just efficient extractors of profit, they also want to believe they are revolutionaries changing the world for the better.

As Stewart puts it, “it’s the sensation of revolutionary moment. They long for that exhilarating instant when they’re fighting the good fight and imagining a future utopia. What happens after the revolution—civil war and Stalinism being good bets—could not be of less concern.” Of course, what happens after this revolution is precisely nothing, it serves to maintain the ongoing violence of the system.

There’s an analog here to Žižek’s idea that charity and consumerism have been combined in the same action, as in Starbucks coffee where 25 cents goes to help the starving children in Africa, etc. Formerly, consumption and charity were diametrically opposed categories: you either selfishly purchased something for yourself or selflessly gave it away. But in a strange way, the consequence of insisting on the absolute importance of charity over consumerism (and successfully achieving that in society) results in the charity being rendered absolutely meaningless. Another example is work vs. play: after insisting that work should not exist, we should only do things we are really passionate about and enjoy, the paradoxical result is the abolishment of play, and acceleration of work - “playing” at one’s passion becomes a 24/7 duty. Here, the opposition between manager and revolutionary has been overcome, the revolutionary won and the result is the abolishment of revolution.

Daniel Pink returns to humanist management in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, summarized in this RSAnimate video. Predictably, the surprising truth turn out to be strangely familiar: experiments in the psychology of motivation show that we are primarily motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose, not financial incentives. He even makes the link to Marx, claiming that this sounds like a weird socialist conspiracy were it not for the fact that this research was commissioned by the Federal Reserve.

Pink’s anti-capitalism appears to be a kind of sentimental Romantic moralizing that our lives should not be about crude material goals like money, and what’s really important are the higher, more spiritual goals like autonomy, mastery, purpose, perhaps also love, artistic endeavors, etc. To put it in the terms of Maslow’s hierarchy, this view maps the conflict between communism and capitalism on to the categories of higher Being needs versus lower Deficiency needs. There’s also the sense that these higher goals are somehow more pro- social: generous, not greedy; sharing, not hoarding; altruism, not self- interest. And Pink points out the successes of Linux and Wikipedia as examples of what can be accomplished without financial incentives.

But it’s difficult to see how reorganizing work so that people can reach these higher goals would improve their material condition. If anything, this new emphasis on intrinsic motivation could very easily be used to justify paying people less, or nothing at all. The curious thing about this idea is that it falsely makes capitalist exploitation into a society-wide problem - “we” are greedy and materialistic, “we” should focus on higher goals. Maybe this is understood as an answer to the common neoliberal claim that competition in the marketplace for material resources is the only way to organize production, but this is only possible if we find this problematic because of the material resources part, not the competition part. If we made people compete for the chance to live their passion, would this be any better?

The truth is that we don’t need to look to Linux and Wikipedia for examples of people being productive while disregarding financial incentives. Despite the promise that hard work gets rewarded, over the last 35 years, productivity has increased dramatically while median household income has been flat. This was made possible partly with the help of the relentless marketing of intrinsic motivation as the new, enlightened and supposedly pro-social way of life.  In the video game industry, software developers earn dramatically lower salaries and 60-80 hour work weeks with unpaid overtime are standard, and this is solely due to the meaning they get from working on games.

So we find that linking intrinsic motivations to pro-social virtues help to shore up capitalism, and it’s interesting to see how this logic is applied to labor in the digital world. The internet is a place where we are constantly enjoined to share and create, essentially working for free to content that generates page views and ad revenue for Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. But I think we are also beginning to see surveillance and peer-policing to ensure that our motivation for participating are sufficiently pure, that we’re sharing for good, intrinsic, pro-social reasons, and not corrupted, extrinsic financial reasons.

The reasons for this phenomenon are clear: Google’s algorithms assume that when a person links to another page on the internet, that’s a vote for it’s quality and relevance. After all, why would you link to something if you though it was poor quality and irrelevant? This assumption holds if the person created the link because they wanted to share useful knowledge and information with others - in other words, out of an intrinsic, pro-social motivation. On the other hand, if they created the link for financial reasons, because they’re being paid to drive traffic to that page, that assumption does not hold and the whole system collapses. We start to see spam sites polluting Google’s search results with poor quality links and searchers are unable to find useful information, we get spammers on blogs and forums promoting their online poker sites, and so on.

This leads to stigmatization of spammers as toxic to online communities and policing of commercial activity, and ultimately the transformation of the encouragement to participate freely on the internet into an injunction: only free, intrinsically-motivated participation is permitted. This is a social prohibition against seizing the means of production, so that only Google is allowed to extract a profit on the internet. The irony is that as much as we all hate spammers for ruining Google’s search results, they’re actually being paid by Google to display ads on those pages!