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This study reveals what really motivates us at work - and it isn’t money

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Employers are always trying to work out what motivates us to work harder. 

And, while many believe it to be money, a new study by Psychology and Behavioural Economics Professor, Dan Ariely, has found that the biggest motivator in the workplace is actually pizza. 

Yes, pizza. 

In his soon-to-be-published book, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, Ariely talks about an experiment he conducted on workplace rewards - and it seems to prove we would always choose a cheese crust over a bonus. 

Employees prefer pizza

Employees prefer pizza

The unaware employees at a factory in Israel were divided into three groups and each sent an email outlining a different incentive for maximising their efforts at work. The three options were: a monetary bonus of $30, a rare compliment from the boss, or a voucher for free pizza.

A fourth group of workers at the Intel factory weren’t sent an email at all – they remained unaware of any incentives on offers – and acted as the control group.

The results were easy to measure given the quantitative nature of the work – employees were assembling computer chips and so their unit production could be clearly calculated – and by the end of the day there was a clear winner: pizza.


Read: The work rules which create a happier and more harmonious office


The productivity level of those who were offered the comfort food favourite went up by 6.7% with those in the ‘compliments’ group coming a close second with a 6.6% increase. 

What’s even more interesting is that on the second day of the study, the productivity level of the workers who were offered money actually dropped by 13.2%.

Unfortunately though, it seems that pizza is quickly forgotten once eaten and compliments short-lived as the productivity for these two groups also fell in the latter half of the weeklong experiment. 

Happy employees at work

Employees are happier at work when they feel valued

Dan believes that this ‘tailing-off’ could have been avoided if he had run with his initial suggestion of delivering pizza to the homes of employees who reached their daily target: “this way… we not only would give them a gift, but we would also make them heroes in the eyes of their families,” he explains in the book.

But, why do pizza and compliments motivate us more than money and status?

Pennsylvania Professor and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant, offered the Wall Street Journal an explanation: “your bonus gets spent, your new title doesn’t sound so important.”

Ariely’s study thus proves that social factors play a larger role in our happiness than money, and his isn’t the first to say so. 


Read: These are the countries with the happiest employees


A survey conducted by the John Templeton Foundation, who support philanthropic research related to human purpose, found that 81% of the 2000 Americans they questioned said they would work harder for a boss who appreciated them. 

In her report on the 2012 survey, journalist Janice Kaplan, highlighted that 70% of this group also said that they felt better about themselves when their boss thanked them more regularly. 

So, it turns out flattery (and pizza) will actually get you everywhere. 

Feature image credit: iStock

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