Dan Ariely on the Importance of Acknowledgement

Nic Meliones pointed me to this fascinating study on work and motivation by Dan Ariely, which he discusses in his book, Payoff.

Ariely’s team created sheets of paper with a random string of letters, then would pay people to find and circle any pairs of letters that they found. Once they finished, they would ask them if they wanted to do it again, this time for slightly less pay. They would repeat this experiment over and over again until people no longer wanted to do the work.

There were three groups. With the first group, there was explicit acknowledgement of the work. After a worker submitted their sheet, the administrator would look the sheet up and down, say, “Uh huh,” and put the sheet on a pile, before asking the worker if they wanted to repeat the experiment (this time for less money).

With the second group, there was no acknowledgement. The administrator would simply put the sheet of paper in a pile without looking at it.

With the final group, there was explicit de-valuing of the work. The administrator would take the paper without looking at it and immediately put it in a shredder.

Not surprisingly, folks in the group that got explicit acknowledgement worked a lot longer than those whose work got shredded. But what was fascinating was that the folks who got no acknowledgement exhibited almost exactly the same behavior as those whose work got shredded.

In his TED Talk on this and related studies (worth watching in full), Ariely observes:

Now there’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes. Ignoring gets you a whole way out there. The good news is that by simply looking at something that somebody has done, scanning it and saying “Uh huh,” that seems to be quite sufficient to dramatically improve people’s motivations. So the good news is that adding motivation doesn’t seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivations seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don’t think about it carefully, we might overdo it.

Bottom line: Take the time to acknowledge people’s work. It doesn’t take much, but it matters.