Last weekend, a friend and avid chess collector gave me a signed copy of Garry Kasparov's book on how chess can play into the way people ought to live their lives. Titled "How Life Imitates Chess", the former world chess champion's book makes a number of connections between his chess career and his political career, his foresight on the board and his foresight in the boardroom.
I haven't gotten around to reading the book in its entirety, but I can't help but reflect on how true the book's title was for my life.
I started playing chess when I was five, and chess has taught me a number of invaluable lessons growing up. I'll share one of them here.
How to go from 100% wins to 100% losses
When I was at one of my first chess tournaments - I think I was still in kindergarten at the time - I saw one of my friends blow one of the largest tournaments of his life. We were at the British Columbia Chess Championships for elementary school. Josh was undefeated for over half of the rounds, and was leading the tournament by a clear margin.
I was so excited for Josh. I could just imagine him representing our province at the Nationals. Even there, he probably had a reasonable shot at winning. And then?
Staring at a bag of chips inside a vending machine, Josh inquisitively asked, "Mommy, can I get that bag of chips?"
I will never forget his mom's words: "Dear, I'll buy you one, but only if you win your next game."
Josh ended up losing the rest of his games.
How does one go from a 100% winning record, to a 100% losing record?
In a study sponsored by the Federal Reserve, Ariely et al. conducted a series of experiments in locales ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to rural India. Their purpose? To study the effect of incentives on performance.
Here's the most relevant takeaway:
As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked exactly as they would be expected: the higher the pay the better the performance.
But once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance
As for some cold hard numbers:
The games on the lefthand side ("Packing Quarters", "Simon", etc.) were tasks that involved some combination of creativity, concentration, and motor skills. Aside from the fact that high incentives led to worse outcomes, what do these games have in common?
Sometimes, we are held back by rules and conventions, by the way things are supposed to be. In psychology-speak, this is called Functional Fixedness. All of Ariely et al's puzzles involved "thinking outside the box" in some way, or sidestepping functional fixedness.
Across the board for tasks that involve overcoming functional fixedness, high incentives produce detrimental results.
The study does not stand alone. In fact, over 40 years of management research corroborates the evidence that material incentives rarely improve, and in many cases harm, individual performance on cognitive tasks.
A particularly interesting study, and the study that started it all, involves candles.
Duncker's Candle Problem
The problem goes like this: you're given a box of tacks, a book of matches, and a candle. The task is to attach the candle onto the wall so that it doesn't drop onto the floor below.
The solution is quite straightforward once you realize that the box is actually relevant: you simply tack the box onto the wall and put the candle in it.
Knowing that the box is, indeed, part of the problem requires circumventing the "fixedness" of the box's original function of holding tacks. But what is the effect of giving financial incentives for completing the puzzle?
The seminal study from 1962 shows that an incentivized group takes an average of 3.5 minutes longer to solve the problem, compared with the control group.
If there are any takeaways here, it's that Josh's bag of chips was a terrible motivator for performance.
What then, for motivation, if not chips?
Chess, needless to say, falls under the "cognitive performance" category. It is a game where creativity pays and functional fixedness punishes. Games are won or lost by moves that your opponent fails to see, and oftentimes these moves defy textbook clichés such as "don't move a piece twice in the opening", or "knights on the rim are grim".
When you are five, a bag of chips is... like the whole world to you. It is, for all intents and purposes, the big reward in all of these papers. And when your mom tells you that you can only get it after you win, over forty years of research supports that this type of bribery was one of the worst possible things for Josh's tournament performance.
So if chips aren't the right motivation, then what is?
I'd like to think that abstract concepts such as purpose and mastery improve performance. In all the films I've seen about chess, from sports movies to romantic dramas, it is not fame or money that motivates greatness. In fact, the antagonist is usually the one with such motivations. Rather it is ideology, and the degree of fervency in which one believes in it, that drives exemplary performance. In areas of my life and the lives of those that are close to me, only a passion for mastery and greater purpose precedes excellence with high frequency.
About the title
My parents learned from Josh's misfortune. "Don't think about the chips!" has been a household saying of ours for more than a decade now. Until recently, I couldn't quite put what it meant in words.
Nearly sixteen years later and with the help of a dozen papers on management research, I think I finally can.