On Motivation: Barry Schwartz

I love Barry Schwartz, not just because of his generosity (he was kind enough to take time for an interview with me about children and choices) but because he is the kind of guy who is always looking at ideas from a different angle. He is an assumption-buster.

His book, The Paradox of Choice, will forever change the way you think about choice and happiness. His latest book, Why We Work, is featured on the Brain Pickings site. He presents an interesting perspective on the dynamics between discovery and invention, in particular, how our institutions shape our own human nature.

How we design our institutions–he is talking about workplaces, but think about it in terms of schools and families as well–has a profound effect on us.

Our ideas about what motivates people to work, Schwartz cautions, have shaped the nature of the workplace in unfortunate ways — particularly when it comes to the ideology of incentives and the carrots-and-sticks approach to reward and punishment.

There is really no substitute for the integrity that inspires people to do good work because they want to do good work. And the more we rely on incentives as substitutes for integrity, the more we will need to rely on them as substitutes for integrity. We may tell ourselves that all we’re doing with our incentives is taking advantage of what we know about human nature… But in fact, what we’re doing is changing human nature.

And we’re not merely changing it; we’re impoverishing it.

Sobering. But then he says:

Human beings are not scorpions. People aren’t stuck being one way or another. But nor are they free to invent themselves without constraint. When we give shape to our social institutions — our schools, our communities and yes, our workplaces — we also shape human nature. Thus, human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design. If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.

You can watch a brief TED talk here.

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2 thoughts on “On Motivation: Barry Schwartz

  1. This is an incredibly important topic that gets discussed in college and in the classroom for pre, new, and inservice teachers. We hear about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation all the time, and current culture in schools depends upon extrinsic (prizes) more and more all the time. My children’s current school puts student names in a drawing every marking period if they read and obtain proof points of reading 3-4 books a marking period. The drawing is for a new bicycle. What are we teaching our children?

    • It starts in the home, and then in school, and then in the workplace. I still believe that it comes down to the question of how do we cultivate a healthy will in our children– and the answers lie in doing more and talking less.

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