Meaning, even a very small meaning, can matter a lot

Friday, March 17th, 2017

Dan Ariely’s studies can be darkly humorous:

In their first experiment, Ariely’s team asked college students to find sets of repeated letters on a sheet of paper. Some of the students’ work was reviewed by a “supervisor” as soon as it was turned in. Other students were told in advance that their work would be collected but not reviewed, and still others watched as their papers were shredded immediately upon completion.

Each of the students was paid 55 cents for completing the first sheet, and five cents less for each sheet thereafter, and allowed to stop working at any point. The research team found that people whose work was reviewed and acknowledged by the “supervisor” were willing to do more work for less pay than those whose work was ignored or shredded.

In a second experiment, participants assembled Bionicles, toy figurines made by Lego. The researchers made the Bionicle project somewhat meaningful for half of the students, whose completed toys were displayed on their desks for the duration of the experiment, while the students assembled as many Bionicles as they wished. “Even though this may not have been especially meaningful work, the students felt productive seeing all of those Bionicles lined up on the desk, and they kept on building them even when the pay was rather low,” Ariely said.

The rest of the participants, whose work was intended to be devoid of meaning, gave their completed Bionicles to supervisors in exchange for another box of parts to assemble. The supervisors immediately disassembled the completed figurines, and returned the box of parts to the students when they were ready for the next round. “These poor individuals were assembling the same two Bionicles over and over. Every time they finished one, it was simply torn apart and given back to them later.” The students in the meaningful and non-meaningful conditions were each paid according to a scale that began at $2.00 for the first Bionicle and decreased by 11 cents for each subsequent figurine assembled.

“Adding to the evidence from the first experiment, this experiment also showed that meaning, even a very small meaning, can matter a lot,” Ariely said. Students who were allowed to collect their assembled Bionicles built an average of 10.2 figurines, while those whose work was disassembled built an average of 7.2. Students whose work was not meaningful required a median level of pay 40 percent higher than students whose work was meaningful.

“These experiments clearly demonstrate what many of us have known intuitively for some time. Doing meaningful work is rewarding in itself, and we are willing to do more work for less pay when we feel our work has some sort of purpose, no matter how small,” Ariely said. “But it is also important to point out that when we asked people to estimate the effect of meaning on labor, they dramatically underestimated the effects. This means, that while we recognize the general effect of meaning on motivation, we are not sufficiently appreciating its magnitude and importance.”


  1. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    Well, I don’t know how clear it is, but it probably demonstrates something about how college students who participate in studies behave around researchers.

  2. Mike in Boston says:

    There was, of course, a Dilbert comic strip related to this:

    “You can choose eternal high pay, but all your work will be burned in front of you at the end of each day. Or you can choose eternal poverty, but your work will be useful and appreciated.”

    “Wow! They’re both better than my current job!”

  3. Wang Weilin says:


    The company I work for is in it for the money (profit). I’m in for the money. On my first day at work years ago in a team building exercise the question was asked,”Why are you here?” Everyone was giving the usual warm fuzzy team building answers until I said money. You would have thought I had belched out loud given their response. I asked if they would work for free. They said no and money went on the list. Nothing like reality for a show stopper.

    Lucky for me, my job is still interesting and pays well.

  4. Felix says:

    People like secure jobs, too. As in jobs that aren’t obvious wastes of people, time and resources.

    “…dramatically underestimated the effects…”

    Perhaps the questioners and question-ees were thinking of two different things.

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