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Payoff: A book review by Bob Morris

Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations
Dan Ariely
TED Books (November 2016)

How and why people can have perpetual energy by investing in “a sense of connection, meaning, ownership, and long-term thinking”

In Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely shares a number of “lessons” he learned from what he calls “experiments” in his life, each of which struck him as being counterintuitive. For example, everything is relative…even when “it shouldn’t be”…or in fact isn’t. That is, our mind can “play tricks” on us and thus we tend to see what we expect to see, hear what we expect to hear, etc. Images and sounds are relative to their context or frame-of-reference within which we place it. He develops several of his key insights in his latest book as he examines “the hidden logic that shapes our motivations.” The material in the book is based on Ariely’s October 2012 TED Talk, “What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?” He reiterates one of the most important lessons he has learned: “To motivate ourselves and others successfully, we need to provide a sense of connection and meaning – remembering that meaning is not always synonymous with personal happiness.”

Here are a few brief excerpts from Ariely’s lively and eloquent narrative:

Having observed a hospitalized friend’s efforts to delay painful but urgently needed treatment, Ariely “realized the devastating roles that helplessness played in my own experience. It made me more deeply appreciate the challenges of being badly injured, the complexity of recovery, and the ways that my experience has deeply changed me. I also realized how many of our motivations spring from trying to conquer a sense of helplessness and reclaim even a tiny modicum of control over our lives.”

“The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that that life’s greatest rewards spring from our experience of pain…[And then after conversations with his friend and his family], I became motivated by a feeling of identification and empathy for them. I felt that my own suffering had not been pointless. And that I could do something to help other human beings — something that I’m uniquely qualified to do.”

“The point is that these seemingly odd and irrational motivations get us to do things that are complex, difficult, and unpleasant. But they go beyond helping people in need. They motivate us in every aspect of our lives — whether in our personal relationships, in our indie ideal pursuits, or in the workplace. This is because human motivation is actually based on a time scale that is long, sometimes even longer than our lifetimes.”

“We are certainly far from grasping the full complexity of motivation, but the journey to understand the thousands of strange and wonderful nuances beneath Motivation with a capital M is going to be exciting, interesting, important, and useful. And if we do it right, the journey will reveal the secrets of more productivity, love, and meaning. Now, that’s motivating.”

I hope these brief excerpts will ignite your motivation to read Payoff and then, if you haven’t already, read his earlier works, notably Predictably Irrational.

As I worked my through Payoff, I was again reminded of Alan Watts’ book, The Book. He explains that there is no need for a new religion or a new bible. “We need a new experience — a new feeling of what it is to be ‘I.’ The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.”

I am also reminded of the key concept in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. He acknowledges that all of us die eventually. Only the suicide decides the circumstances in which physical death occurs. However, Becker suggests that there is another death that can be denied: That which occurs when we become totally preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us.

For me, that is the essential point in The Book. Dan Ariely seems to be making that same point when stressing the importance of efforts — never quitting — “to conquer a sense of helplessness and reclaim even a tiny modicum of control over our lives.” We have every right to cherish that expectation. More to the point, we must embrace the reality that “meaning is not always synonymous with personal happiness.”

* * *

Dan Ariely is the James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He publishes widely in the leading scholarly journals in economics, psychology, and business. His work has been featured in a variety of media including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Business 2.0, Scientific American, Science and CNN. He splits his time between Durham NC and the rest of the world.

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