Book review: Payoff by Dan Ariely

Payoff book cover
Payoff: The hidden logic that shapes our motivations, by Dan Ariely

Reviewed by Christopher Richards

Payoff by Dan Ariely is a short book about meaning and motivation. The central thesis is that intrinsic motivators shape long-term beneficial results, whereas extrinsic rewards don’t.

This small-format TED book is a companion to Dan Ariely’s TED Talks online. At 103 pages it’s a quick read; something you can absorb in one sitting. Dan Ariely entertains us with diverse examples to get his point across. Payoff is a well-structured book in just four chapters, plus an introduction and epilogue.

Professor Ariely’s style is straightforward, easy to read, and occasionally witty. In Chapter 4, he cites an article: The Oddest Things Bequeathed in Dead People’s Wills.

A man named Samuel Bratt, whose wife had no doubt badgered him about his smoking, bequeathed her £333,000 under the condition that she smoke five cigars a day. The German poet Heinrich Hein displayed similar feelings about his wife: he left his estate to her on the condition that she remarry to ensure that “there would be at least one man to regret my death.”

The subtitle of this book, The hidden logic that shapes our motivations, is misleading. Motivation can be complex, but there really isn’t a hidden logic. But there is logic in the structure of Professor Ariely’s writing. Anyone planning to write their own business book take note.


Each chapter has a subtitle explaining what it is about. Chapter 1’s topic is demotivation. The main idea in this chapter is how environments—especially work environments—can create futility. It’s a simple idea told from varying viewpoints.  Professor Ariely starts by recounting his own experience at Intel, as he talks to a group of demotivated engineers. His own research establishes his bona fides.

Any leader or consultant writing a business book would do well to gather a mix of direct professional experience, stories, supporting data, and theory. Here’s how Dan Ariely does it.

Outline Chapter 1

  1. A concrete event: The author talks to a group of engineers at Intel and describes and experiment showing how people are more engaged with activities they enjoy than those that don’t.
  2. He introduces the Sisyphean task as an example of futility. One of the engineers describes how members of his team continually get pulled off projects to start other ones and therefore lack intrinsic satisfaction of completing a task.
  3. We now get a vivid example from The Last Castle? a prison movie which illustrates the same point.
  4. More experiments on motivation and futility at work.
  5. We go from the specific to the general as the author cites a Gallup poll for supporting general evidence.
  6. An example from history: Adam Smith’s famous example of the pin factory. The point is the industrial-revolution mechanical mindset persists.
  7. More support, an appeal to authority with a quote from economist, John Maynard Keynes.
  8. We loop back to his talk with the engineers about demotivation, and where Professor Ariely explains a prediction experiment contrasting meaningful and non-meaningful work cultures.
  9. The author speaks directly to readers asking us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the engineers.
  10. Now we have context for the problem: a persistent nineteenth-century mechanical perspective. People resent being treated as a machine.
  11. Summarizing: What is labor for?
  12. Finally there is a call to action: How to motivate yourself by investing meaning in what you do?

This one simple idea gets expression through events, stories, experiments, data, and intuition. This approach varies the reader’s experience but stays on topic.

Who is the reader?

Professor Ariely appears to be talking to professionals in their late thirties to forties, with young children—people like himself. Or, as  Alexis Zorba says in the 1964 movie Zorba the Greek, “Am I not a man? And man is not stupid? I am a man, so I married; wife, children, house, everything—the full catastrophe.”

Professor Ariely says that people have a deep attachment to their own ideas. In one experiment participants were asked to build Lego creations. They understood their constructions would be disassembled later. When the construction was put under the table awaiting disassembly, subjects were encouraged to build more of them. But when the structures were immediately disassembled upon completion, they were less motivated to continue building new ones.

Conclusion: These people needed a sense of lasting accomplishment, albeit for a short time.

But not everyone is deeply attached to his or her ideas. Many cultures have practices symbolizing transitoriness. Buddhist create intricate sand mandalas only to destroy them. Vanitas paintings of still-life objects represent perishability of all things.  Today’s Burning Man Festival celebrate a cycle of creation and destruction. The point is to avoid too much attachment.

While our own ideas are seductive, they can be resisted. Writers face an ever-present danger. It’s easy to fall in love with your own ideas and expressions of them. But if ideas don’t fit the greater context; if they aren’t relevant to the piece you’re writing, then it’s time to “kill your darlings.”

Meaning and midlife

Professor Ariely claims that we all feel a craving for some kind of afterlife. This is a gross generalization. Not everyone craves “symbolic immortality” as he claims in Chapter 4, On Death, Relationships, and Meaning.

Letting go, loosening our grip is how we grow. We discard the old way in order to be open to something new.

When we reach our late forties or early fifties, our own death becomes less abstract. At midlife there is a fork in the road.  One path leads to doing more of the same, only with renewed effort (failure to change). The other path is to step into the unknown, and this can generate new creative blooming. Everyone grows old, but everyone doesn’t necessarily mature.

Payoff’s payoff

There’s a quote from Viktor Frankl at the beginning of Chapter 1. Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning is one of those books that can change your life.  Payoff may not. But Dan Ariely’s book is a worthwhile and entertaining read.  Its essential message is a good one:

Find a way to invest meaning into what you do.

Disclaimer: Christopher Richards is a business book ghostwriter and has no affiliation with the author of this book.