In today’s class, I showed the wonderful Dan Pink TED talk on motivation (yes, the same Dan Pink who many of you pointed out the other day needs to work on his hand washing).
In part of the video, Dan introduces the candle problem, which is shown in the image above.
The problem was developed by psychologist Karl Duncker in 1945 and it works as follows:
Bring the subjects into a room with a table pushed up against the wall. On the table there is a candle, a box full of tacks, and a book of matches. Their challenge is to affix the lit candle to the wall so that it will not drip wax onto the table below.
Here is the solution:
The problem is with functional fixedness. When people see the box full of tacks, that’s all they originally see. They do not think that the box might have another use, such as a holder for the candle.
In 1962 Sam Glucksberg, a Canadian professor at Princeton repeated this problem but this time he had two groups of people solve the task. To one group he offered a monetary incentive for the fastest time to solve the problem, and the other group he did not. What happened?
The subjects who were offered the incentive, on average, took 3.5 minutes longer to solve the problem than those who weren’t.
Glucksberg concluded that the monetary incentive acted as a sort of mental block, and made it harder for people to think creatively.
Glucksberg then modified the problem as shown below:
This time, the subjects who were offered the incentive performed better than the control group. Dan Pink refers to this as the Candle Problem for Dummies, noting that when the tacks are out of the box, it’s easier to imagine the box being used in a different way.
Pink uses the example to highlight the dangers associated with traditional incentives. Incentives such as “if you do this, then you get that”, work well for well-defined tasks, such as the Candle Problem for Dummies. However, for tasks that require even rudimentary thinking, such carrot and stick incentives don’t work. What is needed is a different way of thinking about motivation.
This is where Pink introduces the idea of intrinsic motivation and highlights the power of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to get the highest level of performance from individuals.
While to me there is nothing new about the power of intrinsic motivators (Frederick Herzberg talked about his two-factor theory of motivation back in the mid-1960s), Pink does a great job of making the concepts easy to understand in an engaging and enjoyable way and using current-day examples to bolster his arguments.
Here is the Dan Pink TED talk in case you are interested; it is about 20 minutes long and has over nine million views…
*images from What Is Motivation