Payoff: The hidden logic that shapes our motivations 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 complicated, but there isn’t a hidden logic. But there is a logic in the structure of Professor Ariely’s writing.


Each chapter has an explanatory subtitle. 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 an experiment showing how people are more engaged with activities they enjoy.
  2. He introduces the Sisyphean task as an example of futility. One of the engineers describes how team members 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 that 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 the 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 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 make more of them. But when the structures were immediately disassembled upon completion, they were less motivated to continue creating 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. Buddhists create intricate sand mandalas only to destroy them. Vanitas paintings of still-life objects represent the perishability of all things.  Today’s Burning Man Festival celebrates a cycle of creation and destruction. The point is to avoid too much attachment.

While our ideas are seductive, they can be resisted. Writers face an ever-present danger. It’s easy to fall in love with your own thoughts 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, a gross generalization. Not everyone craves “symbolic immortality,” as he claims in Chapter 4, On Death, Relationships, and Meaning.

Loosening our grip is how we grow. We discard the old way to be open to something new.

When we reach our late forties or early fifties, our death becomes less abstract. In 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 approach 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 this book’s author.