This week I started Dan Ariely's new book (and given that it's in business book double-spaced, lots of white space stylee* I'll probably finish it by Saturday) and it's got lots of interesting stuff in there about work and motivation. There's more info, for example, on the experiments on the impact of bonuses on performance that have been picked up elsewhere (short answer: biggest bonuses led to worst performance).
Some of the most interesting stuff is about our need for meaning in our work. In one experiment he got the subjects to build models out of Lego for money. They could choose how many to complete. One group was told that models would be disassembled later on, for the next batch of subjcets to use. In the other group they actually saw the models being disassembled as they worked. So in the latter case the pointlessness of the task was really driven home. Unsurprisingly (to me anyway) the latter group chose to build significantly less models.
He carried out a similar task in which subjects had to identify pairs of letters on pages of type in return for payment. But when one group of subjects handed in their sheets the experimenter shredded them without looking, so they knew that their work was pointless. Once again those in the 'pointless' group spent less time trying to earn money.
On one level this is just common sense. Obviously if you see that a task is pointless your motivation will drop off, right? But these were hardly particularly compelling tasks in the first place. And as such why wouldn't the prospect of more money keep pushing you on, regardless of the pointlessness of the task? It seems like the need for meaning is actually at the core of out attitude to labour.
* This actually annoys the hell out of me, since it makes the book feel more superficial than it is, and a bit of a con. Personally I would have prefered a slim book that surprised me by how much it had in it. Bit of an own goal for a behavioural economist?