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Volume 17, Issue 47;   November 22, 2017: Motivation and the Reification Error

Motivation and the Reification Error

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Last updated: July 23, 2019

We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people.
The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006

The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006. Curling is similar to shuffleboard, except it's played with polished granite "rocks" on ice. The players try to control the final resting place of a rock by sweeping the ice in its path, to create a thin layer of melt water, which reduces the friction between the rock and the ice. In effect, they are removing a hindrance to the movement of the rock. The precise portion of the ice in which the hindrance is removed determines the path of the rock.

So it is with the behavior of the people we try to "motivate." They will do what they can, given the nature of the obstacles and hindrances we have not yet removed. The word "motivate" is itself part of the problem, because it suggests that managers and leaders are the ones who create the "motion" in the direction of the goal. They are not. The people they manage or lead are the ones who create the motion. What managers and leaders can do is to remove the factors that prevent motion.

Photo by Feddar, courtesy Wikimedia.

A widely used approach to implementing organizational change is to communicate the goal, and then motivate people to reach for that goal. Typical approaches involve incentives for people to change their behavior, sometimes combined with disincentives to deter unwanted behavior. It's your basic carrot-and-stick approach. It works on donkeys and pigeons, so, hey, it should work on people, too. Except it doesn't work so well, because people are smarter than donkeys and pigeons.

And so it is with most motivation programs. Incentives can fail because they invite people to try to earn the incentives without exhibiting the desired behavior; disincentives can fail because they invite people to evade the disincentives even if they do exhibit the unwanted behavior. And neither incentives nor disincentives address any possible obstacles in the path to the goal.

The problem is related to a common mistake humans make when dealing with anything other than real objects. We tend to use the same thought patterns for manipulating abstract constructs as we use for real objects. Sometimes it works. Often it does not. The choice to treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects is called the reification error [Levy 1997].

For example, project managers are often called upon to report periodically the percentage of work that's complete. They do so, with the understanding that the resulting number is an estimate of a social construct — work to be done. But many of the recipients of these reports regard them as measurements of real objects, like the number of miles from here to Cleveland. They commit the reification error.

Because motivation is a construct, we risk committing the reification error when we try to motivate people. Compared to other constructs, the risk is relatively high with motivation, because it's so similar to what we do with objects. We "encourage" an object by pulling it to a desired location; we "discourage" it by pushing it away from an undesired location.

Our experiences Compared to other constructs, the
risk of making the reification error
is relatively high with motivation,
because it's so similar to
what we do with objects
with objects are deep in our psyches, dating back to infancy, even before we could speak. That might be one reason why we try to apply those early experiences when motivating people. But people don't respond to pushing and pulling the way inanimate objects do, because they are, well, not inanimate. Unlike pots, pans, and rocks, people have minds of their own. To motivate people, we must take their minds into account.

Kurt Lewin's Force Field Analysis provides a model that works well [Lewin 1964]. People tend to do what they want to do, but only if they can. Communicating the goal, and explaining incentives and disincentives, can provide helping forces relative to reaching the goal. But obstacles — hindering forces — can sometimes cancel the helping forces, resulting in stasis. The hindrances in question here are contextual, arising not from the work itself, but from trying to do the work with the resources provided, in the context provided. Before we set about motivating people, verifying that we've removed all contextual obstacles is wise. A motivation program cannot make circumventing obstacles any easier, nor can it make impossible goals possible. Go to top Top  Next issue: Manipulators Beware  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Levy 1997]
David A. Levy, Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. Order from Amazon. Back
[Lewin 1964]
Kurt Lewin and Dorwin Cartwright. Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers, New York: Harper, 1964. Order from Amazon. Back

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