Spend a significant amount of time with any social psychologist, and sooner or later they will tell you the story about the wise old man and the abusive teenagers.
According to the anecdote, there was once a wise old man who lived in a rough neighbourhood. One day, a group of surly teenagers decided to give him a hard time. Each day the teenagers would walk past the front of the old man’s house and shout abuse at him. Many old men would have decided that the best way forward was to shout back at the teenagers, call the police, or hope that the group would eventually grow bored of their mean-spirited ways. However, the wise old man had a sound understanding of psychology, and so came up with a completely different, and altogether more cunning, plan.
He sat outside his house waiting for the teenagers to come along. When the group showed up the old man immediately handed a five-pound note to each of them and explained that he was happy to pay them to shout abuse. Bemused, the teenagers took the money and came out with their usual rude remarks. The old man repeated his actions each day for a week.
The following week was slightly different. When the teenagers came along, the old man explained that he had had a tough week financially, and so could only pay each of them a pound. Unperturbed, the teenagers continued to take his money and persisted with their childish chants.
At the start of the third week everything changed again. When the group arrived the old man explained that it had been another tough week, and so he could now only afford to pay the teenagers twenty pence each. Insulted at the small amount of money on offer, the teenagers refused to shout their abuse.
The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it reflects a fundamental truth about why we do what we do. To fully understand the wisdom behind the old man’s actions we need to travel back to the 1970s and discover what happened when a group of people were paid to solve a wooden puzzle.
Psychiatrist Edward Deci was a big fan of a commercially available puzzle called ‘Soma’. The puzzle involved giving people several oddly shaped wooden blocks and asking them to arrange the blocks into specified shapes. Deci wondered if the puzzle could be used to discover whether the As If principle influences motivation.
Deci invited volunteers into his laboratory and asked them to play with the puzzle for thirty minutes. Before starting, some of the volunteers were told that if they could solve the puzzle they would be given a financial reward, whilst the others weren’t offered any incentive.
After thirty minutes, Deci told all the participants that their quality time with Soma was up. He then explained that he had left the paperwork needed for the next part of the experiment in his office, and so had to leave the laboratory to fetch it. As is so often the case with social psychology experiments, this ‘I have to leave the laboratory now’ ploy was a cover story. The important part of the experiment was just about to take place.
Deci left each participant alone for ten minutes. During this time, they were free to continue to play Soma, or read I the magazines that had been strategically placed on a nearby table, or indeed neither. Their behaviour was being secretly observed all of the time by Deci.
Conventional pigeon-based reward theory predicts that those who had been paid to play Soma would have found the puzzle especially enjoyable, and so be more likely to carry on with it when Deci left the laboratory. In contrast, the As If principle makes a quite different set of predictions.
According to the As If principle, the participants who were offered the financial reward to play with the puzzle would have unconsciously thought, ‘People only offer me money when they want me to do something that I don’t want to do. I was offered money to play with the puzzle, so it can’t be much fun.’ Using the same logic, those who weren’t offered any financial incentive would have unconsciously thought, ‘People only offer me money when they want me to do something that I don’t want to do. I wasn’t offered any money to play with the puzzle, so it must be fun.’ Seen in this way, those who had been offered the reward had been made to behave as if they didn’t actually enjoy playing with the puzzle, whereas those who hadn’t been offered any financial incentive were behaving as if playing with the puzzle was fun. According to the As If principle, Deci’s payments would have turned play into hard work, and so the participants who were financially rewarded would be significantly more likely to leave the puzzle alone when he left the room.
Deci’s results provided overwhelming support for the power of acting As If. Regardless of participants’ success at completing the puzzle, those who had not been previously offered the financial reward were far more likely to play with the puzzle when left to their own devices.
Other researchers quickly conducted several similar experiments to discover whether this intriguing finding was genuine. In perhaps the best known of these studies Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper and colleagues visited several schools and asked schoolchildren to draw some pictures. Before being allowed access to the crayons and paper, Lepper told one group of children that they would receive a ‘good player’ medal for drawing. A second group was not given the promise of any reward. According to the As If principle, the children who were offered the medals would have unconsciously thought, ‘I am only offered rewards when adults want me to do something that I don’t enjoy. I am being offered a gold medal for drawing, therefore I must not like drawing.’ Similarly, the children in the other group would have thought, ‘I am only offered rewards when adults want me to do something that I don’t enjoy. I am not being offered any reward for drawing, therefore I must like drawing.’
A few weeks later Lepper and the teams returned to the school, handed out the drawing materials again, and measured how much the children played with them. Those who had received the medals a few weeks before spent significantly less time drawing than their classmates.
The message from the studies is clear. By rewarding the behaviour of schoolchildren, smokers and drivers you are encouraging them to behave as if they really don’t want to read books, stop smoking or buckle up. As a result, the moment the rewards are removed, the desired behaviour runs the risk of grinding to a sudden halt or, worse, becomes even less frequent than before incentives were first introduced. In the short-term, reward systems can be effective. However, over the long haul most organizations struggle to maintain a continuous supply of special privileges, sweets, gifts and bonuses, and the moment the rewards stop, people’s motivation often vanishes into thin air.
The man with X-ray eyes
Having established that the As If principle plays a key role in motivation, researchers began to explore other ways in which the effect could be used to encourage people to spring into action.
In the workplace, some business gurus argued for the importance of reconfiguring jobs to make them more intrinsically enjoyable by giving employees a greater sense of autonomy, purpose and fun. When it came to people’s personal lives, some psychologists turned their attention to role-play. Take, for example, the work of Leon Mann from Harvard University and his groundbreaking study into giving up smoking.
Mann invited twenty-six very heavy smokers to his laboratory and randomly split them into two groups. Those in one group were asked to behave as if they were going to give up smoking by role-playing someone who had been diagnosed with cancer. To make the pretence as realistic as possible, he created a fake doctor’s office at the university. When the participants entered the room they were faced with a variety of medical equipment and an actor wearing a white coat. The actor played the role of a doctor and brought out the participant’s alleged X-rays. It wasn’t good news. According to a set of fictitious medical records, the participant had lung cancer. The participant was asked to respond by discussing how they now intended to give up smoking.
In contrast, the participants in the control group were shown the same highly emotional information about them having lung cancer, but were not asked to alter their behaviour by taking part in any form of role-play.
The results were remarkable. At the start of the study all of the participants were smoking around twenty-five cigarettes a day. Immediately after the experiment those in the control group cut down by an average of five cigarettes per day, whereas those who had been involved in the role-play showed an average reduction of ten cigarettes per day. Acting as if they were going to reduce the amount they smoked caused a significant change in the participants’ actual behaviour. The researchers then tracked the participants over the next few years and discovered that the effect was not shortlived.
RIP IT UP
AUTHOR: Richard Wiseman
PUBLISHER: Pan Macmillan
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Reprinted with permission from Pan Macmillan