Pizza Does Not Motivate Employees More Than Cash

Laura Clawson

Pizza motivates workers more than cash, according to a headline that’s been making the rounds — in disbelief, not agreement — on social media. So what’s going on with this? Who would say that? Because … what?

As it turns out, it’s not an idea pulled directly out of the ass of some corporate consultant. Even though that’s what it sounds like. Although an image of a headline is circulating now, the coverage dates to 2016, when psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely released the results of a study testing three ways of motivating workers against a control group that was not offered an incentive. Pizza, a complimentary text from the boss, and about $30 cash were the three incentives. Pizza came in just behind the “Well done!” text from the boss, with cash doing the worst. Or so Ariely said.

Before we get into what this study would and would not mean if it was carried out absolutely perfectly, there’s this: In 2021, Ariely had to retract a different study — one on honesty — because of fake data. So that’s one grain of salt to add to your reading of his pizza study. But even if the pizza study was conducted with the utmost care and diligence and produced completely accurate data, there’s still absolutely no reason to believe it’s universally true. 

So any bosses out there who are thinking, “Great, I’m going to toss my workers the occasional pizza rather than a raise,” should slow their roll, for a number of reasons.

First off, it’s one study of one group of workers. Specifically, workers in a semiconductor plant in Israel. (That’s why it’s not exactly $30 in cash.) That setting offered the advantage of being able to measure productivity in the form of how many chips the workers made. But it’s not necessarily generalizable, as the coverage implies.

We don’t know how much those workers were paid regularly. This is a significant question when you’re considering how much motivation $30 would provide. There are people for whom $30 is more than four hours of work, and there are people for whom it’s the tip they casually give their hairdresser or waiter. A small cash bonus for someone who doesn’t worry about money lands really differently than the same amount of cash for someone worried about making rent.

The fact that this study’s incentives were one-time also matters. If you get a “Well done!” text from your boss every week, it might just start seeming a little insincere and pro forma. If you get a pizza party every week, you might start thinking it would be nice to just get to go home early instead.

Whereas if you got a $30-a-week raise, well, it wouldn’t be a very big raise — you deserve more! — but you’d be talking about $1,560 a year. In many parts of the United States, that’s a month’s rent.

If we want to put it in pizza terms, with $30 a week extra, you could get a large pizza as a meal for your family and still have some money left over, rather than eating a couple of slices at work. For a lot of families in this country, a weekly pizza night registers as a real extra in life.

But $30 a week could also mean back-to-school clothes for your kids. It could mean not falling behind on the electric bill. These things matter to people.

Indeed, according to a 2022 Gallup poll of more than 13,000 U.S. workers, the most important thing in considering a new job would be “a significant increase in income or benefits.” Nearly two out of three workers said that was “very important” to them. “Greater work-life balance and better personal wellbeing” came in second, with 61% identifying it as very important. It’s safe to say they didn’t mean pizza parties by that.

What’s appealing about Ariely’s study, to managers, is that it looked at one-time incentives, not at the effects of treating workers well and paying them a living wage week in and week out.

As articles like “51 Employee Appreciation Day Ideas That Won’t Break The Bank” show, management is always looking for ways to convey “appreciation” without spending money, let alone giving raises. Whereas workers are pretty clear that being paid enough to live on is important — and bosses, who are themselves paid well enough for $30 to seem irrelevant, generally don’t want to hear it. 

This is not a hypothetical.

Recently, as workers at a Minneapolis Trader Joe’s moved to unionize, a worker put a sign in the break room saying, “We need a living wage, not a pizza party,” Josh Eidelson reports. How did management respond? By starting an investigation and grilling workers about the sign.

When that’s the attitude you take to workers saying they need a living wage, you kind of show the real motivation behind the pizza party.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on October 20, 2022. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. She has been full-time staff since 2011, and she is currently the assistant managing editor.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.