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Golden Handcuffs

Professor Dan Ariely in his “LEGO experiment” (source: Ariely, D., Kamenica, E. & Prelec, D. (2008). Man’s Search for Meaning: The Case of Legos. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 67, 671-677.) tried to assess the effect of “meaning” in people’s work, by offering people less and less money to build LEGO toys until it was no longer worthwhile for them to build LEGO toys for pay.

Limit of LEGO Experiment
One of the limitations of this approach is that you may be dealing with “building fatigue” — people starting to get physically and mentally tired after a certain # of builds, and this would be a contributor to their refusal — not so much the decrease in money.

What if you let people rest for an hour (the duration of the average lunch break) and continue building for lower $? Would the lowest $ point change?

What About the Golden Handcuffs effect?
Image by question that is related to this lecture is what I’ve heard as the golden handcuffs: you no longer find meaning in your job but the money is just too good. Thus you keep doing a job you hate, because you don’t want to give up the money, even as other factors relating to motivation (intrinsic rewards) are at a all-time low.

How would you test this using an experiment? I’m just curious how we’d design an experiment around this. Should we have people build LEGOs for $3, $3.07, $4 etc… while someone yells into their ear saying “you suck!” to simulate demoralizing work condition?

I think a rational way to weigh the benefits and risks of golden handcuffs – based on my personal experience (yes, I have been there), goes something like this:


$$ Salary
$$ Health benefits
$ Bonuses, paid vacations, holidays
$ Stability, feeling of security however illusory


-$$ Work-related stress, depression requiring therapy
-$$ Personal strife due to work stress
-$ General negative health effects due to stress
-$ Having to pretend like I’m “Leaning In” when I feel like “Checking Out”

For the most part, I’m highly self-motivated, thus the “golden handcuff” effect has come largely due to demoralizing conditions due to work-related politics that appear well beyond my control, yet the consequences of these affect how well I am able to perform my work.

Updated: April 20, 2013 — 3:28 pm

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