Bestselling Author Daniel Pink on What Really Motivates Us To Change

An Interview With Jason Hartman

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…We’ve got to get past this idea that motivation is something that one person does to another, and understand that it’s something that we do for ourselves. Instead of trying to motivate other people in a controlling way, you’re much better off trying to change the context, change the environment so that they can motivate themselves.

It’s my pleasure to welcome a name you certainly know, and that is Daniel Pink. He has done many things and authored many books. He’s host of a new series on National Geographic, entitled Crowd Control, he’s a Contributing Editor for Wired, former Chief Speechwriter for Al Gore and aide to former Secretary of State, Robert Reich. He’s a bestselling author of To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and many, many others. I’ll leave it at that and let him talk about the rest.

Jason: Dan, welcome, how are you?

Daniel Pink: I’m good, Jason, thanks for having me.

Jason: Well, it’s great to have you. Give our readers a sense of geography; where are you located?

Daniel: Geography? I am in Washington DC.

Jason: Okay, good, the belly of the beast.

Daniel: Indeed, yup. I don’t live in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs, I live right here in the District of Columbia, so I have plenty of taxation and no representation.

Jason: [Laughs]. I love it. Well, considering that’s coming from an Al Gore, Robert Reich guy, I’m kind of surprised you say that, but okay!

Daniel: It’s like that old line that a Conservative is a Liberal who’s been mugged, and a Liberal is a Conservative who’s been arrested. I would say that a Social Liberal Fiscal Conservative is a Democrat who’s become self-employed.

Jason: I love it! And you’re candid about it too, that’s awesome. Well hey, your new show is fascinating! Tell us what you’re doing on Nat Geo’s Crowd Control show.

Daniel: Yeah, this is a really great show. I’m biased, obviously, but it’s a really great show and what we do is this: we go out and look for problems. We look for big problems; things like people speeding which results in a lot of deaths, things like airline safety. There are also some small problems: things like people who don’t pick up their dog poop or people who double-dip guacamole. Then we look to the behavioral science. We look to this whole body of research and psychology and economics and to some extent, sociology. We say ‘Okay, what does the research tell us?’ and then we have this fabulous team of designers and technologists and we go out there and come up with a solution. We put it in place out there in the real world and see what happens. Sometimes we do a great job of solving these problems — well, a lot of the time we do. Sometimes we don’t do so well.

One of the ones that we did which was just really, really fun was the problem that people don’t exercise enough. Yet when we’re given moments to exercise in our day-to- day lives, we often ignore them. A classic example of that is when we’re faced with a choice of taking the escalator or taking the stairs, and we take the escalator. How do you get more people to take the stairs?

What we did, building on an idea that was done in Sweden, is we went to lower Manhattan, very close to Wall Street, and there was this escalator and a set of stairs, and we transformed the stairs into beat-box stairs. Every time someone stepped on a step, it made a beat-box sound like ‘boom, wicky, chicky’, and suddenly we had everybody taking the stairs. It’s an interesting strategy. Instead of saying ‘You have to exercise, shame on you for not exercising’ or wagging your finger at people to exercise, all we did was make the choice of climbing the stairs a little bit more fun and it had a dramatic effect on how people behaved.

Jason: So what you did is you gamified stairs, and not only gamified it, but made it an opportunity for self-expression.

Daniel: I think there’s something to that, no joke. It wasn’t pure gamification in the sense that there weren’t points or anything like that. It really was partly about self-expression, but it was also as much about social things. We had people going up and down the stairs together, we had people trying to make music together.

Jason: Pardon the pun ‘make music together’, that’s a good one.

Daniel: Yeah, and so what we ended up doing was changing people’s behavior in a subtle, non-coercive way and then you’ve got more people exercising. On the sales one too, we spent a lot of time thinking about money. We decided to think ‘Can we use some of the science of persuasion and selling to help this guy named Brian?’ He’s a small entrepreneur, he basically makes artisanal, home-made beef jerky and he sells it at farmer’s markets. We went with him to a farmer’s market in New York State. I was in his booth and saw how he was doing things, and then we said ‘You know what, let’s try some different strategies based on what the research tells us’. He was offering up a little plate behind his counter in the farmer’s market and he’d say ‘Would you like a taste?’

We encouraged him to come out from behind the booth and actually use the word ‘free’ all the time. Everybody loved free stuff. ‘Free’ triggers a kind of psychosis in our head, and so instead of saying ‘Would you like a taste?’, it was ‘Would you like some free beef jerky?’, ‘Would you like a free sample?’ He suddenly got a lot more people that way.

We also triggered the principle of reciprocity in that one reason that companies and stores use free samples is that human beings are natively reciprocal. If you do something for me, I’m inclined to do something for you and so by giving somebody something for free, they might say ‘Oh, well you did me a solid, I’ll do you a solid by buying some of your jerky’.

The third thing that we did which was really interesting — there’s some very interesting research that shows the power of rhymes, that rhymes increase what cognitive scientists call ‘processing fluency’. They go down easier and actually are believed more deeply. We had him out there using rhymes, saying “Don’t be a turkey, try some free jerky”.

Jason: How did that work?

Daniel: It was entertaining, but it was more than entertaining. It stuck. It was like ‘Oh yeah, I’d be a fool not to have some free beef jerky’. We also did one a little bit more explicitly on his branding because a lot of the beef jerky that’s sold in stores is very, very heavily processed, not particularly good ingredients or anything like that. We had him out there saying “My jerky’s no mystery, I know its history” because it was home-made and artisanal and all that. This combination of things ended up doubling this guy’s sales and he’s still using them!

What we’re trying to do is show that if you pay attention to a little bit of the science, if you think a little bit differently, you can do a little bit better out there.

Jason: Fantastic. You used Chris Anderson’s Free concept, and then you got Robert Cialdini’s reciprocity law, so you’ve blended all of this great stuff. So his sales doubled?

Daniel: They doubled on that afternoon and they’ve continued to do very, very well. He changed the way that he did things, and you’re exactly right. I’m glad that you hat-tipped Chris Anderson and Robert Cialdini because Anderson’s book really showed some of the psychosis that takes over when people hear ‘free’, and Robert Cialdini’s book Influence is, to me, one of the very best non-fiction books anybody in business could read. It’s a classic, incredible book, and his principle of reciprocity is so powerful.

This is exactly what we’re trying to do. Cialdini is an academic, Anderson is not, but we’re trying to take these things that seem a little academic and this research that is a little bit varied, and we’re trying to bring it to the surface and say ‘Hey, you can use this to make your community better. You can use this to get a little bit more exercise. You can use this to sell some more beef jerky.’

Jason: Fantastic. Do you have one of those that worked the best? Did you keep stats on all of the different approaches or did you sort of blend them all together?

Daniel: We kept stats on everything, that was a very important part of the show. We would always establish what the base-line metric was for something and then we would see whether our intervention improved it. Some of the stuff is apples and oranges, so it’s hard to compare which one worked better than the other. If we’re trying to get people to use a revolving door rather than a side door, versus how do you get people to apply sunscreen on the beach, it’s hard to compare those two things.

A lot of the stuff we did worked. Occasionally, we did stuff that actually made the problem worse, but we showed that on air too. This is not one of those confected, very artificial reality shows. A classic example of this is we took on the problem of bike theft in New Orleans and I had what I still think is a brilliant idea.

People were the judge of that, as you’ll see in a moment. You can be the judge, they were really the jury. They issued their verdict pretty swiftly on this one. Bike theft in New Orleans is a big problem just because of the way it’s configured; certain neighborhoods are easier to get into with a bike rather than a car, but New Orleans has a lot of challenges. The police can’t be everywhere. We heard about this thing that they did in one city in India where they also had insufficient police presence. There they created these life-size cardboard cut-out police officers. If you think about like a scarecrow, that’s basically what it was. The idea is that if someone sees it from afar, you really can’t tell whether it’s a real police officer or not, you really can’t.

Also, there’s this kind of a secondary theory that simply the image of authority can affect people’s behavior. We used that and we even doubled down and used some very interesting research on how men with especially wide faces — if the ratio of the width of their face to a certain aspect of the height of their face is very large — that’s a marker for aggression. There’s some very interesting research on that.

Jason: That’s interesting because I’ve heard that prisons are full of men with really short thumbs. Have you heard that one?

Daniel: I’m not sure about that one, but they’re full of men with really short faces. It’s really quite remarkable. If you measure the ratio of the width of your face at its widest point to essentially the height from your eyebrows to the top of your lip, men with a very high ratio correlate with aggression. It’s freaky.

Jason: That is freaky. So Dan, that’s really quite interesting, and then it begs the question of: Maybe if that facial characteristic is considered, for example, and I don’t know if it is or not, less attractive, are they more aggressive because life didn’t open doors for them, or are those genetics causing that face to be that way, and that’s a trait of a more aggressive person? What do you make of that?

Daniel: That’s a great question. I don’t know.

Jason: Chicken or egg?

Daniel: I think the answer to chicken or egg in that case is yes. It’s both. In that case, the facial width to height ratio is physiological. It has to do with the presence of testosterone, so it’s a physiological characteristic. It’s not necessarily the case that it’s not considered attractive, but what it might do is that if it is a marker for aggression, or that it correlates for aggression (it doesn’t mean that every man with a high facial width-height ratio is going to be a murderer)..

Jason: Yeah, of course not, but it might suggest a predilection.

Daniel: Right, of course, and so if I’m a little bit more aggressive than another person, then maybe I’m not going to flourish as well at school, say, which could make me more aggressive.

Jason: But it could make you a great athlete, for example.

Daniel: Well, I’ll give you a great example of this, you’re spot on. Some researchers went out and they took the NHL, the National Hockey League, the yearbooks for each team, and they measured the facial width-height ratio of each player and that correlated almost perfectly with penalty limits.

I think it’s a really, really cool topic. I didn’t get a lot of it on the air, but what we had was we had people in our crew and everybody wanted me to measure their face.

Jason: Right, I’m busy measuring my face right now!

Daniel: Yeah, I measured mine. I’m slightly above the median in my ratio, nothing super aggressive.

Jason: That was obviously a survival mechanism in the more barbaric era from times gone past, or maybe present times in some places!

Daniel: Oh, sure. Certainly, evolution probably selected for some amount of aggressiveness. Not probably wild amounts, but some amounts because you’re more likely to survive.

Anyway, taking us all the way back to bike theft in New Orleans, we found an actor with an especially wide face and had him pose for these cardboard cut-outs. He really looked menacing, he looked like he was going to kick your butt. We put him in a police uniform and we put these life-size cardboard cut-outs of a cop in bike theft hotspots all over New Orleans to try to deter bike theft. We measured the bike theft before, we measured the bike theft after, and here’s what happened.

The number of bike thefts went down, but the bad news is that the reason was that people stole all the cut-outs!

After a day, all the cut-outs had been stolen. That was one that didn’t work so well. That’s why I’m saying it; I thought this was such an awesome idea, I thought ‘We’re going to nail this thing, it’s going to be such a cost- effective solution for police forces’ and it totally back-fired.

Jason: The title of one of your books — To Sell is Human. Why did you pick that title? Why is selling human?

Daniel: First of all, it’s something that all of us do all the time, whether we like it or not. If you look at how, just think about on the job, let alone all the other aspects of our lives — look at how people actually spend their time on the job. They’re spending an enormous portion of it persuading, influencing, convincing, cajoling. You’re an employee and you’re trying to get your boss to free up some resources, or you go to a meeting and you’re pitching an idea, or you’re a boss and you’re trying to get your employees to do something different or do something in a different way. We’re selling all the time. That’s one reason that it’s human.

The second reason that it’s human, and probably a deeper reason is that today especially, in a world where no-one has a monopoly on information, where there isn’t as much asymmetric information as before is that the way to do it well, the way to be effective as a persuader, a convincer, a seller is to actually be a little bit more human. It’s drawing on some fundamentally human characteristics like the ability to take someone else’s perspective, the ability to listen, the ability to — as I said before — to see things from someone else’s point of view, the ability to put the other person first. Those kinds of fundamentally human qualities actually make us more successful today.

Jason: Very interesting. Now, in the Nat Geo show, you discovered something interesting that there’s a connection between saving for retirement and using sunscreen?

Daniel: [Laughs]. Yeah, believe it or not, there is. This is interesting. There’s some great research out of NYU, a guy named Hal Hershfield who was wondering why people don’t save for retirement. It’s crazy, right? It’s totally against your interests to save for retirement.

Jason: You mean it’s with your interest, right?

Daniel: Sorry, sorry, it’s totally against your interest NOT to save for retirement. You’re crazy not to. It’s a foolish move. The reason is what economists call hyperbolic discounting, which is what you and I and other human beings think is planning for the future. We’re much more likely to take small pay-offs now to larger pay-offs in the future. Hershfield was trying to save this problem of why don’t people save for retirement.

What he discovered was something really really intriguing — we think of ourselves today and ourselves; let’s take someone who’s in their forties. She thinks about herself in her seventies as a different person. I like you Jason, but I’m not going to save money for your retirement.

Jason: Darn!

Daniel: And so they think of them as a different person. What Hershfield decided to do was this — let’s say we have a 45- year old, we’ll call her Maria. We want 45-year old Maria to save for retirement; he did his experiment where if people saw an age-advanced photograph of themselves with the software that allows you to see what you might look like at age 70 or 75. If they saw themselves at age 75, that closed the gap between their view of themselves today and their view of themselves tomorrow. They realize ‘Oh wait, that is me’, and it made them more likely to save for retirement. Fascinating research.

With the sunscreen we did the same thing. We said ‘Let’s use that for sunscreen’. People don’t use sunscreen, they get skin cancer and the incidence of applying sunscreen is much lower than you might think. We went to the Jersey Shore and we set up a photo booth. The photo booth said ‘Come in and see a vision of your future’. We had people come in and they pressed a few buttons, it took their photograph and using software, we showed them what their skin would look like with 20 or 25 years of sun exposure.

That’s what people said — ‘Oh boy’. They were yelping, and as a consequence of that, people started applying sunscreen. They would come out of our photobooth and start applying sunscreen because they were basically choosing the short-term pay-off of ‘Ooh, the sun feels really nice’ to the longer term reward, which is not dying.

They had a hard time thinking of themselves in the future and themselves today as the same person and this photobooth that we devised and built on this research of retirement savings ended up really increasing the use of sunscreen on people. It was really amazing. We had people leaving the photobooth and immediately asked for sunscreen and started applying it because they were so horrified about what they looked like.

Jason: In economics, we all know about the concept of net-present value, or at least a lot of us do. When I talk about inflation in my various seminars, I always quote one of my childhood teachers about inflation, and it was Wimpy from Popeye. He always said “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”. He understood the future value of money, which would be lower than it was today, right? It sounds like we discount out future self, and that’s just a human tendency, isn’t it? Maybe it comes from back in evolutionary days when we didn’t know if we would live that long. We still don’t, but it’s much more certain than maybe it ever has been in human history, right?

Daniel: I think that’s actually a really good point. That explanation makes a ton of sense to me. Let’s take something where you’re talking about net present value or your time value of money. That was not a concept when we were evolving because first of all, we didn’t have money, and second of all, we didn’t have a lot of time.

Basically, you’re just trying to get through the day. You’re just trying to make sure that the saber-toothed tiger doesn’t eat you today so you can wake up on Thursday. I think that’s probably part of why we have that cognitive bias toward the short-term pay-off versus the long-term pay-off, which is why a lot of us go awry and why we need certain kinds of interventions to help us behave a little bit better. It’s not because we’re bad people, it’s just because maybe as you’re implying or suggesting, that our brains are not perfectly equipped for the modern world.

This is what’s effective about things like retirement savings. People that work in a company have a chance to contribute to their 401(k) and get it matched, and they don’t do it. One of the most effective things to stall that problem was automatic enrollment and basically changing the default. People are automatically enrolled in their 401(k) program at the company. They can opt out, but no-one does because we just go through these default behaviors.

As we were talking about at the top of the program, there are these subtle, non-coercive ways to help change people’s behaviors, change our own behavior for the better.

Jason: What motivates us? You talk a lot about motivation. What motivates us and how can we motivate others? The age- old question. I guess the first person we’ve got to motivate is ourselves, right? How can we be better at motivation?

Daniel: We’re motivated by a lot of things. Let’s go back to what you were talking about before. We’re motivated by biological things — we eat when we’re hungry, we drink when we’re thirsty. That’s a form of motivation. We are motivated by rewards and punishments, there’s no question about that. In certain circumstances, if you reward behavior you’ll get more of it, if you punish behavior you’ll get less of it.

I think what we’ve missed out on is that human beings have another set of motivators that in some level economists and even biologists have a harder time explaining. We do things because we like them. We do things because we get better at them. We do things because it’s the right thing to do. We do things because we like having control over our own lives. That third set of motivators is a more kind of intrinsic motivator, but they’re also really, really important. I think the problem we have at organizations is that we only rely on those first two sets as biological motivators and the reward and punishment behaviors, and we don’t take a three-dimensional view of people. I think that’s at the heart of the problem.

One of the great scholars in motivation, a guy named Edward Deci, who’s at the University of Rochester and is really one of the legendary figures in the scientific study of motivation, said something really, really important. He said we’ve got to get past this idea that motivation is something that one person does to another, and understand that it’s something that we do for ourselves. Instead of trying to motivate other people in a controlling way, you’re much better off trying to change the context, change the environment so that they can motivate themselves.

Jason: How do we change that context and environment and how do they motivate themselves? We need to leave it to them?

Daniel: Yes and no. All kinds of things. It really depends on what people are doing, but there’s a lot of evidence. I’ll give you a great study that explains this — it’s a study of fundraisers at the University of Michigan. These are work-study students who are making phone calls to University of Michigan alumni to raise money for the school. The researchers divided the student callers into three groups, and everybody is treated the same way. They have the same kind of call list, the same script, etc etc. The only thing different is what they do for the 5 minutes before they get on the phone.

The first group is the control group so they read 5 minutes of something neutral, ants and bees or something like that. The second group for the 5 minutes before they get on the phone reads letters from people who used to work at the call center, testifying to the personal benefit of having worked there. “My name is Jason, I worked at this call center for a year and a half as an undergraduate, I learned communication skills and sales skills and I’m now a banker in New York and it’s been very useful to me”. The third group also read letters, but they read letters from people that were on the receiving end of the money that was raised. They’d get a letter saying “My name is Jane Smith, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to College but I got a scholarship to the University of Michigan, funded by some of the money raised here and I’m now a pediatrician.”

Three groups. One group is our control group, the second group had 5 minutes of reading about the personal benefit, the third group had 5 minutes of reading about the purpose. It turned out that the third group performed twice as well, earned twice the amount of weekly pledges, twice the amount of donation money as the other groups and it was simply that 5 minute intervention of essentially explaining to people why you’re doing this in the first place, why you’re raising the money, what the point is.

Jason: I’ve heard about the studies where someone will want to cut in line in front of someone and literally by using the word ‘because’ it makes it completely different — even if the reason is totally stupid. Like, “Can I cut in front of you because I’m in a hurry?” Obviously you’re in a hurry, duh!

Daniel: That’s a really interesting one, too. I think that that’s going to work in the short-term. Cialdini, who we mentioned before, has written about that particular study and it’s a fascinating study. If you go into the workplace and you want people to perform well, if people know why they’re doing what they’re doing, they’re going to perform a little bit better. There’s a lot of research out there showing, for instance — there’s another piece of research on lifeguards. If you have lifeguards towards the end of the summer read an article about lifeguards who save people’s lives and the other lifeguards don’t read that article and they read about ants and bees, or something like that, the guards who were reminded of what lifeguards do and why they do it were much more likely to re-apply for the next summer.

Again, you’re not saying ‘You can do it, you’ve got this’ and you’re not threatening people saying ‘If you don’t do this right, I’m going to blah blah blah’. You’re doing something a little bit more subtle and in the workplace, the key is basically to hire great people. That’s hugely important. Hire great people, pay them well and fairly and then give them some autonomy over their work, help them get better at something that matters and help them understand not only how to do what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it in the first place. Show them the contribution that they’re making, and that ends up being a very effective recipe for enduring motivation.

Jason: There’s really just no question, is there, Daniel, that the human being wants to have a purpose and a mission and a reason. It’s not just about, for example in the workplace, making a living or making money — it’s much deeper than that, isn’t it?

Daniel: It is. Human beings in general want to have a sense of meaning and it’s part of who we are and people seek that understanding of meaning in different ways. Some are through religion, some through science, some through the workplace, some through volunteer activities. It’s how we are, it’s what makes our species different from other species. I’m not sure that even higher level cognitive species like apes or dolphins or pigs are sitting around wherever dolphins and pigs and chimpanzees sit — probably not at a bar!

Jason: That would be a good joke, though!

Daniel: Yeah, a dolphin, a pig and a monkey walked into a bar. I don’t think a dolphin is saying ‘Why am I here?’ I don’t think that a pig is saying ‘What’s the point of all this?’

Jason: Well, we don’t know. That’s yet to be discovered, but I agree, it doesn’t seem like it.

Daniel: If there were a way to know and we were taking bets, I would bet that they’re not thinking about that, but you’re absolutely right, we don’t know. We certainly know that from a very early age, that’s what human beings do. They want a sense of meaning, they want a sense of purpose, they want to get up in the morning and do something where it matters, where it makes a contribution and where if they didn’t show up, somebody would care.

Jason: Absolutely. That’s a very, very good point. For everybody listening, you need to try and institute that in your workplace and in your personal life and it’ll just make you a lot more effective. That’s a very good message. Daniel, tell people where they can best find you.

Daniel: Yeah, you can find me at, on Twitter at @DanielPink and also on the National Geographic Channel. The show is called Crowd Control, it’s on Monday nights on the National Geographic Channel at 9pm Eastern Central and then also again on at 9pm Pacific time as well.

Jason: Good stuff. Well, a closing thought on any part of your work, Dan, whether it be motivation or whatever. I’ll just give you the last word.

Daniel: I’m not that different from anybody else. I’m just like everybody else; I want to do something that matters and have a purpose. I want to feed my family, obviously, but once I feed my family and once the kids have winter coats, you think about why you do what you do. To me, both this television show and the books that I’m writing — if someone out there does something a little differently to make their own lives a little bit better, I feel pretty good about that.

Jason: Daniel Pink, thank you for joining us.

Daniel: Jason, thanks for having me.

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