The Little Engines That Wouldn’t

Once upon a time, some people were asked to assemble toy trains.

This was an experiment to see how much work people would do before giving up. The participants were paid for each toy they assembled, but each successive toy paid less than the one before. (That is, if they were paid $x for the first toy, the second paid $x-1, the third, $x-2, etc.)

To make it more interesting, the participants were broken into two groups. In one group, the assembled trains were left in the test area, where the assembler could see the product of their work. In the other group, the toys were disassembled by the test monitor and put back in the box to be reassembled.

The first group built more trains before giving up; about ten to the other group’s seven. This is usually interpreted to mean that people will work harder and longer if they can see what they have made; if their work has a visible, tangible, result. I think that that is only part of the answer. I with the test had had a third group; their trains would be removed from the testing area after completion. I am pretty sure that they would have built eight or nine trains before giving up.

As motivational and satisfying as it is to see a tangible product that you have built, it is even more demotivational and depressing to see your work undone as fast as you can do it. I think the second group suffered not only from not having a visible result from their work, but from having a visible non-result.

No one likes for their work to go completely to waste, much less to have their nose rubbed in it.

Both of those things, unfortunately, are common in the workplace.

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