Why You Can’t Pay People to Give Blood


In a previous post we talked about the rise of ‘bullshit jobs’ (here) but that analysis only addresses part of what is wrong with the world of work. You have undoubtedly heard the expression that ‘people quit managers, not organisations’, and there is plenty of evidence that this is the case: For instance in one Gallup study about 50% of the 7,200 adults surveyed left a job to get away from their manager.

There is clearly something wrong with the way many of us are managed, but what is it? The view from the social sciences suggests this might be because so much of what passes for management ‘science’ embodies a profound misunderstanding of how people behave and what it takes to get the best from them.

Let’s just look at something that is central to the role of any manager, recognising and rewarding performance. Many managers are surprised to learn that performance-related pay doesn’t encourage people to work harder, and often has the opposite effect. This is because it fundamentally misunderstands what motivates people to do a good job at work. Way back in 1970 Richard Titmuss discovered that paying people to donate blood actually reduced the number of people willing to give blood. It might seem obvious that if someone is already willing to do something, then paying them to do it would encourage them even more. But the clue is in the language we use: people ‘give’ blood they don’t ‘sell’ it.

What Titmuss found, and most managers miss, is that extrinsic motivations displace intrinsic ones. Intrinsic motivations are what drive us to do something because we find that task interesting, enjoyable, or worthwhile. The motivation to do the task, and do it well, come from within. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is about doing something for what it will bring you. Psychologists have known for a long time that explicit incentives often backfire by undermining the value inherent in the task. It may seem bizarre, but the research is clear that if there is something you love doing for the sake of it (such as playing tennis or golf), than getting paid to do it will probably make you enjoy it less. This is also why you really don’t want to turn your hobby into a job.

Rather than writing performance plans and setting targets, the secret to motivating staff seems to be in compliments and pizza. I’m not being flippant either, a great experiment by Dan Ariely demonstrated that giving staff pizza or compliments was more effective at keeping them motivated than giving them cash rewards. People work harder when they feel appreciated, which is also why it’s a good idea to compliment them in public (and criticise them in private).

Managers are an easy target for social scientists but you might be surprised to hear that social science has a great deal of sympathy for managers too. This is because managers struggle with the same biases as the rest of us, and are usually just as clueless about those biases. This means they are just not very good at judging other people. Like all of us, they will probably be unaware how their impressions of others are influenced by how good looking those people are, how tall they are, and how often they talk in meetings. The research into how we judge others is clear that we see those who speak-up first, or loudest, or most often, as being more charismatic than those that don’t. This can lead a ‘tyranny of the articulate’, where the best talkers win the debate even though they have the weakest argument. But often we’re drawn to the talkers regardless of what they actually have to say. There is an easy way to see this for yourself: Google ‘how to be more charismatic’ and what you will find are endless lists about how to talk, dress, and impress but very little about the quality of your message.

There is plenty more we could add to this criticism of management in modern workplace but the larger point should have been made by now. The root cause of all the problems outlined above is that managers are either taught or come to believe that the world is just what it seems to their senses (a perspective known as ‘naïve realism’). From the perspective of the social sciences, we can see that nothing could be further from the truth[i].


[i]               The Gallup study is quoted in Benjamin Snyder’s (2015) “Half of us have quit our job because of a bad boss”, Fortune, April 2, 2015. There is a useful systematic analysis of performance-related pay and bonuses by Bernd Irlenbusch, and Dirk Sliwka titled “Incentives, Decision Frames, and Motivation Crowding Out: an Experimental Investigation”, IZA Discussion Paper No. 1758. (September 2005). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=822866. There is also a nice short summary in Samuel Bowles (2009) “When Economic Incentives Backfire”, Harvard Business Review, March 2009 Issue. The concepts of intrinsic and motivation are covered in most undergraduate psychology textbooks but there is a nice summary in Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci’s (2000) “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions”, in Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000). Richard Titmuss’s 1970 study is in his The gift relationship: From human blood to social policy. London: Allen & Unwin, and is well worth reading. One of the reasons why extrinsic rewards crowd out intrinsic motivations is explained by The OverJustification Effect. Have a look at Lepper, M.P; Greene, D.; Nisbett, R. E (1973). “Undermining children’s Intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 28 (1): 129–137 to learn more. The Dan Ariely experiment is documented in his (2016). Payoff: The hidden logic that shapes our motivations, New York: TED Books, Simon & Schuster. For a great insight to the power of peer pressure to motivate staff, see Monsalve MN, Pemmaraju SV, Thomas GW, Herman T, Segre AM, Polgreen PM (2015) “Do Peer Effects Improve Hand Hygiene Adherence among Healthcare Workers?”, Infection control and hospital epidemiology, 2014: 35(10):1277-1285. To find out more about ‘the beauty bias’, try Deborah Rhode’s eminently readable (2010) The beauty bias: The injustice of appearance in life and law. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. The ‘height premium’ is covered in Joe Pinsker’s (2015) “The Financial Perks of Being Tall”, The Atlantic, May 18, 2015. The description of “the tyranny of the articulate” comes from the “Pinterest Founder Ben Silbermann’s Lessons on Decision Making, Values, and Taking Time for Yourself”, which is a Village Global post on Medium (https://medium.com/@villageglobal/pinterest-founder-ben-silbermanns-lessons-on-decision-making-values-and-taking-time-for-yourself-5c76c1517a38). To understand how easy it is to be fooled by charisma, have a look at Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie’s (2015). Wiser: Getting beyond groupthink to make groups smarter, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston. It’s also worth reading John Antonakis’s (2012) “Learning Charisma”, Harvard Business Review, June 2012.

Why You Can’t Pay People to Give Blood

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