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Is money the main reason we go to work?

Win the lottery and quit work?

When asked, many people claim that money is not just the main reason but the only reason for having a job. Can that be true?

The problem with money
The problem with money can be simply stated. It is effective at forcing people to go to work but no one likes to be forced. When we feel that others are pulling the strings, we go away mentally. Money saps our internal motivation for work.

This phenomenon was explored by psychologists many decades ago. In one charming early experiment, children were given felt-tipped pens to play with, an activity that most enjoyed. Half of the children were than paid for playing with the pens.

Would the money increase children's interest in playing with pens? The evidence was clear. Children who had been paid lost much of their interest in playing with the pens when given the opportunity to do so without pay. Play had been turned into work.

People do all kinds of work because they enjoy the activity for its own sake. Anglers love to fish but it is not because they use the fish as food. In fact many practice catch-and-release and continue fishing with unabated enthusiasm. Motivation theorists say that we are intrinsically motivated for such activities. .

We are not intrinsically motivated for work, which is why we need to be paid. Money can be highly effective at motivating hard work. In fact, when employees are paid under a piece rate system, where a fixed amount of money is paid per unit of work, they work so hard and take so few breaks, that they endanger their health. Piece work is so bad for health that it was outlawed by unions and people around the world are mostly paid for time on the job rather than on the basis of productivity.

Powerful though money is as a form of control over workers, it is not the only reason that people show up at work and probably not the most important.

Taking money out of the equation
Yet, there is abundant evidence that employees find their jobs intrinsically rewarding. Ask yourself what people do when money is taken out of the equation.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, public employees went unpaid for months at a time. Yet most continued to show up on time for work. The familiar routine of work was somehow preferable to spending the day at home.

Lottery winners fall into two camps. One group says that quitting work is their first order of business. The other says they plan to stay on the job.

Retirement is a similar conundrum. Some retirees cultivate rewarding hobbies and never look back. Others cannot face spending the day at home with their spouse and return to the work force after a week off.

What else does a job offer?
Being good at a job makes the work more enjoyable whether you are building a wall or writing a piano concerto. The reason, of course is that coworkers and clients alike appreciate a job well done and are liable to express their appreciation.

Behavioral psychologists refer to this as social reinforcement. Social reinforcement is every bit as powerful as money. Adulation, praise, or affection, are as potent as any drug in motivating people to work hard. What is more, social reinforcement increases our interest in the work we do because it gets imbued with social significance. These experiences, and not money, are what makes people want to return to their place of work day after day, even after the age of retirement.

We should not forget that most jobs are vastly entertaining. The workplace is a stage and all the men and women there merely players. What is the point of winning the lottery if you cannot make your coworkers green with the news.

More from Nigel Barber Ph.D.
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