The Digital Age has created many new opportunities for the fulfillment of desires. We give our free time and labour to amending an entry in Wikipedia, for example, or to uploading photos onto Demotix, or to making a video on YouTube, or to joining a club on Meetup.com, or to embarking on a quest on World of Warcraft, not because it necessarily makes us money (it probably doesn’t) but because these activities satisfy our desires for autonomy, mastery, purpose and social engagement, perhaps more than our nine-to-five jobs.
So are humans less motivated by financial incentives than classical economics believed? That’s what social scientists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester decided. Deci and Ryan carried out a series of experiments in the 1970s and 1980s, which suggested that, when you introduce a financial incentive for an interesting activity, you can actually reduce people’s motivation to do it. Why? Because something that was previously intrinsically fun and interesting then becomes extrinsically motivated: we do it merely to get the reward, and stop caring about the activity in-and-for itself.
Ali was firstly a boxer—the Olympic Gold winner for the U.S. in Rome (1960), and later the World Heavyweight Champion. He said he was the greatest and he was. But Ali also stood for something more than boxing, and was willing to stand for it in even if it meant losing everything else he had worked for.
At the height of his career in 1967, Ali refused to be inducted in the military and fight in Vietnam, making the famous pronouncement: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”
In the context of the time, to refuse the draft and call to national action, especially as a black man, was an act of disobedience that brought immediate social and legal consequences. Ali was arrested and prosecuted by the U.S. government, stripped of his title by the boxing commissions, and left unable to work for more than three years.
Do you believe in something enough to cope with public censorship, the risk of imprisonment, and the loss of your ability to work? What if you had the opportunity to earn millions of dollars if you just didn’t protest and went along for the ride?