money and a watch

Motivational Priming

My research in the domain of human motivation has had a profound influence on me. I never realized how important the distinction is between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When we are motivated intrinsically, we become dedicated, passionate, and persistent. When we are motivated extrinsically, we get tunnel vision on the reward and become less concerned with the underlying activity. This can result in lower quality of performance if we can get the reward through shortcuts.

A recent study by Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School found something quite powerful.

Money, a resource that absorbs much daily attention, seems to be involved in much unethical behavior, which suggests that money itself may corrupt. This research examined a way to offset such potentially deleterious effects—by focusing on time, a resource that tends to receive less attention than money but is equally ubiquitous in daily life.

When participants in her study were primed with a thought of money, they became more self-interested, less helpful, less fair, less sensitive to social rejection, and more likely to cheat. This emerged even though the priming was really quite subtle – simply completing scrambled sentence puzzles, a few of which had money-related terms inserted.

But the contrasting condition is perhaps even more interesting. When participants were primed in the same way with terms related to time, the opposite effect emerged. They became more generous, more motivated to connect with others and less likely to cheat. She hypothesizes that time encourages people to think more about the important things in life – such as spending time with family – and that this is what primes the intrinsic behavior.

Think of all the incredibly useful ways we can leverage this insight. I am reluctant to be self-interested in using her self-less results, but we can prime our users to be more intrinsically focused and get a more dedicated, passionate, and persistent customer. Less likely to cheat, more generous, more likely to help others. The selfish possibilities are endless.

Image credit: “Time is money” by Nina Matthews used under CC BY 2.0

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