Pizza motivates workers more than cash, according to a headlineÂ thatâ€™s been making the rounds — in disbelief, not agreement — on social media. So whatâ€™s going on with this? Who would say that? Because â€¦Â what?
As it turns out, itâ€™s not an idea pulled directly out of the ass of some corporate consultant. Even though thatâ€™s what itÂ sounds like. Although an image of a headline is circulating now, theÂ coverageÂ dates to 2016,Â 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 behindÂ the â€śWell done!â€ť 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, thereâ€™s this: In 2021, ArielyÂ had to retract a different study — one onÂ honesty — because of fake data. So thatâ€™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, thereâ€™s still absolutely no reason to believeÂ itâ€™s universally true.Â
So any bosses out there who are thinking, â€śGreat, Iâ€™m going to toss my workers the occasional pizza rather than a raise,â€ť should slow their roll, for a number of reasons.
First off, itâ€™s one study of one group of workers. Specifically, workers in a semiconductor plant in Israel. (Thatâ€™s why itâ€™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 itâ€™s not necessarily generalizable, as the coverage implies.
We donâ€™t know how much those workers were paid regularly. This is a significant question when youâ€™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 itâ€™s the tip they casually give their hairdresser or waiter. A small cash bonus for someone who doesnâ€™t worry about money lands really differently than the same amount of cash for someone worried about making rent.
The fact that this studyâ€™s incentives wereÂ one-time also matters. If you get a â€śWell done!â€ť 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 wouldnâ€™t be a very big raise — you deserve more! — but youâ€™d be talking about $1,560 a year. In many parts of the United States, thatâ€™sÂ a monthâ€™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 moneyÂ 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 â€śa significant increase in income or benefits.â€ť Nearly two out of three workers said that was â€śvery importantâ€ť to them. â€śGreater work-life balance and better personal wellbeingâ€ť came in second, with 61% identifying it as very important. Itâ€™s safe to say they didnâ€™t mean pizza parties by that.
Whatâ€™s appealing about Arielyâ€™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 likeÂ “51 Employee Appreciation Day Ideas That Won’t Break The Bank”Â show, management is always looking for ways to convey â€śappreciationâ€ť without spending money, let alone giving raises.Â Whereas workersÂ are pretty clear that being paid enough to live onÂ is important — and bosses, who are themselves paid well enough for $30 to seem irrelevant,Â generallyÂ donâ€™t want to hear it.Â
This is not a hypothetical.
Recently, as workers at a Minneapolis Trader Joeâ€™s moved to unionize, a worker put a sign in the break room saying, â€śWe need a living wage, not a pizza party,â€ťÂ Josh Eidelson reports. How did management respond? By starting an investigation and grilling workers about the sign.
When thatâ€™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.