In 1960, Dr. Suess made a bet with Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, that he could write a book relying on only fifty different words. Though challenging, the bet resulted in Green Eggs and Ham, a classic that’s beloved in my house (and maybe yours) and Dr. Seuss’s bestselling book.
Constraints, then, can open our minds and drive creativity rather than hinder it. Poetic masterworks spring from the boundaries of verse and rhyme. Masterpieces of Renaissance art started as commissions in which the painter was bound to adhere to narrow specifications and subject matter, materials, color, and size. In our own work, constraints take many different dorms, from tight budgets to standardization. If you ask a team to design and build a product, you might get a handful of good ideas. But if you ask that same team to design and build the same product within a tight budget, you’ll likely see even more creative results. Research examining how people design new products, cook meals, and even fix broken toys finds that budget constraints increase resourcefulness and lead to better solutions.
This type of public grandstanding is common in the animal world, too. Israeli ethologist Amotz Zahavi noted that animals often engage in showy and even dangerous displays of courage to attract mates and raise their stats. Male peacocks show off their gorgeous plumage in part to demonstrate to females that they can support the heavy weight, an evolutionary disadvantage. (Large tail feathers translate into slower running and a reduced ability to hide from predators.) Antelopes often engage in stotting: They leap acrobatically straight into the air when hungry cheetahs are pursuing them, even though sprinting straight for the horizon is a better move. The animals’ dangerous waste of energy conveys strength, telling the cheetah, “Don’t even bother trying.” Similarly, guppies swim right under their predators’ noses before darting away. In evolution, it seems, survival of the fittest only captures part of the story.
Here’s a more scientific example of how this tendency works. Two psychologists, Peter Ditto (of the University of California, Irvine) and David Lopez (founder and CEO of iAnalytics Statistical Consulting), told participants that they would take a test to determine whether they had a dangerous enzyme deficiency. For the test, participants had to put a drop of saliva on a strip and then wait for the results. Some learned that the strip would turn green if they had the deficiency; others learned that green meant they did not have the deficiency. The strip wasn’t a real test — it was simply a piece of paper that ever changed its color. The result? Participants who hoped to see the test strip turn green as evidence that they didn’t have the deficiency waited much longer than those who hoped not to see it turn green. That is, people waited more patiently for data when they believed the data would reassure them than when the believed it would scare them.
As another example, an HBS study of the freelancer contracting site oDesk (now renamed Upwork) found that surprise incentives resulted in greater employee effort than higher pay. Harvard Business School researchers posted a data-entry job on oDesk that would take four hours. One of the postings offered $3 per hour fo the job; the other offered $4 per hour. People with past data-entry experience were hired at either the $3 or $4 rate. But some of those who were initially told they’d be paid $3 were later told that the hiring company had a bigger budget than what they expected: “Therefore, we will pay you $4 per hours instead of $3 per hour.” The group initially hired at $4 an hour worked no harder than this hired at $3. But those who received the surprise raise worked substantially harder than the other two groups, and among those with experience, their effort more than made up for the cost of the extra pay.
One battery in particular was critical to the bombardment due to its elevated terrain. But it was also the most vulnerable to counterattack, thus making it the most dangerous to operate. Bonaparte’s superiors informed him that no soldier would volunteer to man the battery. Walking through camp in contemplation he spotted a printing machine which gave him an idea. He created a sign to hang near the battery: “The battery of the men without fear.” When the other soldiers saw it the next morning they clamoured to earn the honor of operating that cannon. Bonaparte himself wielded a ramrod alongside his gunners. The cannon was manned day and night. The French won the battle; Bonaparte won the acclaim.
A survey of US college students asked them to reach to a description of a professor teaching at a top tier school. For some students we described the 45 year-old professor as wearing a t-shirt and having a beard. For others, we described him as clean-shaven and wearing a tie. The students rated the professor in a t-shirt as having higher status. The perception that an individual is consciously choosing not to conform is critical.
To signal status, deviations from the norm must demonstrate one’s autonomy to behave consistently with one’s own inclinations and to pay for the cost of nonconformity.