Monday, September 1, 2008

Looking for Meaning in Lego

Now this is different. Dan Ariely, Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec have run a set of experiments on 'meaningful work.' Their paper describes the experiment with the goal of seeing whether meaningful work makes you work harder. Why am I writing about it here? Because the experiment used Lego.

The subjects were male undergraduates at Harvard University, recruited via posters around the university. Each subject participated in the experiment alone, without the presence of other subjects. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions, Meaningful (N = 20) and Sisyphus (N = 20), and were unaware of the other condition. The procedure was similar to that used in Experiment 1. In each of the two conditions, subjects received payments for assembling Bionicle Lego models according to a declining unit wage schedule. Each Bionicle consisted of 40 separate pieces, with written instructions on how to assemble them into a figure. There was only one way to combine the pieces, and no subject had trouble following the assembly instructions. The mean time to build the first Bionicle was around 10 min. Before deciding whether to build each Bionicle, the subjects were told how much they had earned up to that point and how much they would earn for making another Bionicle. The subjects were paid $2.00 for the first Bionicle, $1.89 (11¢ less) for the second one, and so on linearly. For the 20th, as well as for any subsequent Bionicles, they received $0.02. The only decision the subjects made was when to stop making Bionicles. At that point, they were paid and the experimental session was over. During the experiment, we measured how long it took each subject to build each Bionicle. ...

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk.

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter. This was the only difference between the two conditions. Furthermore, all the Bionicles were identical, so the Meaningful condition did not provide more variety than the Sisyphus one.

And the results:

the subjects in the Meaningful condition built significantly more Bionicles than those in the Sisyphus condition. In the Meaningful condition, subjects built an average of 10.6 Bionicles and received an average of $14.40, while those in the Sisyphus condition built an average of 7.2 Bionicles and earned an average of $11.52.

And there I thought that no matter what you did with Lego, it was meaningful. I guess that isn't the case.