Why am I not motivated in this excellent situation?

Once upon a time in 2011, I serendipitously stumbled on to a question on a stack exchange site I had never been to, and would never visit again. The title was so click-baity I just had to click!

It was another programmer asking for help: Why am I not motivated in this excellent situation? As it happened, I had been casually studying this exact topic for the past few years and thought I knew the answer.

The personal productivity stack exchange has since gone away but I want this question to live on here for two reasons:

First, it gets to the heart of something that I think is counter intuitive (or at least counter narrative) about human motivation and so I think the information might be useful to others searching for their own answers to this question.

Second, since I’ve read the details of this question it has continued to haunt me. I think about this question all the time. Until David asked this I had never considered the business model proposed – and now it’s all I think about. It has lead me to a deep seeded belief that programmers should be getting royalties, and backwards from that, that programming is more like writing than engineering.


Why am I not motivated in this excellent situation?

I am working as a freelance contractor. For a long time I have been paid by the hour. This has worked fine and my motivation has never been a problem. Now, I have gotten a deal where I get half oa ny increased profit that are due to my actions/ideas etc. This is an excellent deal, which would most likely raise my income ten-fold.

My problem, however, is that the deal caused me to completely lose my motivation. Meaning that I have literally not done any meaningful work for them for about three months. Why is that? How could such an excellent deal cause me to loose motivation? I am after understanding this to depth so please only answer if you have specific references.



As silly as it sounds, getting paid more money actually DECREASES performance for non-trivial tasks (see references). This problem has been studied a lot in behavioral economics, and psychology.

The problem is one of Extrinsic Motivation replacing Intrinsic Motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is your innate desire to do a good job. It’s what you feel when you’re working on something you want to be working on because you yourself want to see the project completed. Working on hobbies, or learning new non-work related skills are examples of intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is when you receive something in exchange for your efforts. When you are paid to do some job, or when you receive a grade in school.

Intrinsic motivation is much more powerful, people who want to do a good job often produce much better work than people who are merely getting paid to accomplish a task. The terrible thing is that our brains are wired to replace intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation almost at the drop of a hat.

These people explain what’s happening far better than I can:

In Dan Ariely’s book The Upside of Irrationality, he talks about pay for performance bonuses and how they actually affect our behavior. http://danariely.com/2010/06/20/a-talk-i-gave-at-poptech/

Joel Spolsky also wrote a great article about it, talking about management. http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2006/08/09.html

From the article:

“But when you offer people money to do things that they wanted to do, anyway, they suffer from something called the Overjustification Effect. “I must be writing bug-free code because I like the money I get for it,” they think, and the extrinsic motivation displaces the intrinsic motivation. Since extrinsic motivation is a much weaker effect, the net result is that you’ve actually reduced their desire to do a good job. When you stop paying the bonus, or when they decide they don’t care that much about the money, they no longer think that they care about bug free code.”

Another example of Over justification Effect is the Candle Problem: http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Candle_problem

Great explanation of the Candle Problem at TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng /dan_pink_on_motivation.html

I’ve tried to keep the formatting and wording of the original as accurate as possible. I never found out what happened to David; how this deal worked out in the end. He left a very touching comment at the time: “Thank you, I will use this information everyday for the rest of my life”. I wish I knew how to get in touch with him to tell him how his question has also changed my fundamental understanding of software engineering, and thus my life too.