What makes us feel good about our job: An observation of Jean Paul the parrot

A few days ago, I came across a book on my bookshelf written by an author whose name sounded surprisingly familiar. Sitting in the midst of my favorite authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner, I finally remembered that it was Dan Ariely whom we discussed in class a few sessions ago.

Back in 2013 when I purchased the book, I did find the book interesting, but no particular anecdote or theory stood out to me as relatable. This time however, I felt a strong connection to the concept of joy of work discussed in the second chapter after spending a year interning at a startup in 2014.

Contrafreeloading: Observation from Jean-Paul the Parrot

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A whimsical story that I particularly loved in this chapter was about Dan’s pet, a highly intelligent, Mealy Amazon parrot named Jean Paul. She was obsessed with a toy called SeekaTreat, a wooden pyramid-like puzzle containing parrot treats that she had to find ways to crack into to retrieve the treats. She relieved her parrot boredom through toys like SeekaTreat, and became so accustomed to earning food that she refused to eat if the food was simply provided for her. Cuteness aside, Jean Paul’s behaviour stems from the concept of “contrafreeloading” coined by an animal psychologist Glen Jensen, which refers to the observation that many animals prefer to earn food rather than simply eating identical but freely accessible food. Cracking into the toy gave meaning to eating the food, as Jean Paul managed to ‘earn’ it.

Finding meaning in what we do is perhaps a natural response for both animals and humans, though it seems irrational that we value hard work rather than take shortcuts to achieve the same outcome. A prominent example to illustrate employees’ need to find meaning in work is the fact that more and more people are leaving big (and profitable) multinational companies for startups. (KIEA) 

Last year in New York City, I saw countless startup founders who used to hold high-level positions at prestigious multinational firms. Most had Ivy League degrees and MBAs and clearly, they were all smart enough to know that money was never guaranteed at a startup. But startups just kept on sprouting and founders kept on coming. It was truly baffling to observe people who used to be in expensive suits jetsetting from one place to another now wearing slacks and t-shirts, munching on Chinese takeaways and working day and night in a squeezy space. Yet there was energy and hope around them. They were happy. Dan’s observation about the significance of meaning and joy at work helped me to reflect back on what I saw in New York.

 These people might have joined MNCs for monetary reasons, but they could not find reasons for continuing to work at the companies. As observed in early research by Morse et al., in the absence of meaning, the most common type of job as a replacement, is to start a business by himself. (Morse, 1955)

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What does this mean for companies wishing to retain their employees? Perhaps they should take a closer look at the box labelled Organizational Rewards; how much of this box comprises of recognition and acknowledgement of work done? Unlike a startup where individual’s efforts show up as tangible results, employee’s contribution in larger companies is neither directly measurable nor observable. A manager’s report on a market trend might have contributed to the newly formulated global strategy of the company, but the manager himself cannot directly see the results of his efforts. So how can his efforts be recognised such that he finds his job meaningful? I think one way is for the company to thank employees for their contribution to each project/milestones etc. Managers tend to think that paying people is reason enough for them to perform at their best, but extrinsic motivation only goes so far. Before thinking of pay and bonuses, managers need to first appreciate the works of his employees, and make them feel that they are also fulfilling the corporate mission and vision of the company.

Even parrots like to earn their food and feel good. Surely, companies do not need to adopt pet parrots to learn this lesson? 😉





Ariely, D., & Jones, S. (2010). The upside of irrationality: The unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home (Vol. 159). New York: Harper.

Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity (KIEA)

Watch Dan Ariely on “ What makes us feel good about our work”: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_what_makes_us_feel_good_about_our_work?language=en

Morse, N. C., & Weiss, R. S. (1955). The function and meaning of work and the job. American Sociological Review, 191-198.


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