Maslow's Basement

Have you ever taken a survey in hopes of winning a $50 gift card or an iPad? I haven’t either. Why these campaigns are ever run in the first place has always puzzled me. Here’s an excerpt from “Made to Stick” that sheds a little light on why people run these offers.

So imagine that a company offers employees a $1,000 bonus if they meet certain performance targets. There are three different ways of presenting the bonus to employees:

  • Think of what that $1,000 means: a down-payment on a new car or that new home improvement you’ve wanted to make.
  • Think of the increased security of having that $1,000 in your bank account for a rainy day.
  • Think of what the $1,000 means: the company recognizes how important you are to their overall performance. They don’t spend money for nothing. Which of these 3 positionings would appeal most to you? Most people answer #3. It’s good for our self-esteem to think how important we are to the firm. Here’s the other question: Which of these positionings would work best for other people? Well, that yields a different answer. People put #1 first, #2 second, and #3 third. In other words, WE are motivated by self-esteem but other people are motivated by a down-payment on a car.

Here’s an image of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for those who are not familiar. This study from “Made to Stick” shows that we are motivated by appeals to our higher level needs - things at the top of the pyramid, while we believe that others are living in Maslow’s Basement - motivated by physical things.


I’ve always been confused as to why people use gift cards and iPads to incentivize survey responses or to try and drive attendance at free events. Maybe there is data behind those moves, I doubt Penn State student organizations have data for that, but maybe large corporations do. Or maybe large corporations should stop giving their employees GoPros and start incentivizing them from the top of the Pyramid.

If you’re not motivated by an incentive, chances are neither is anyone else. That’s something I am always going to check myself against.