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Why people work hard, even when they already have everything they need

These scientists carried out a study to understand why people sacrifice leisure to work and earn more than they need.

Image: JD Hancock via Flickr/Creative Commons

IN A RECENT talk, Google CEO Larry Page raised a radical notion: We all might be working much harder than is necessary.

“The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true,” he said, pointing to recent advances in technology that have made meeting humanity’s basic needs much easier.

Some people work hard to pay rent, to put food on the table, because they enjoy it, or — in rare cases — because the job really demands it. But what about everyone else, those who earn more than they need and still run themselves ragged, often working to the point of misery?

Christopher K Hsee, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has looked at this very question. The basic hypothesis is that people work until they are beat, instead of working until they have “enough.” That means it’s the highest white-collar earners who are likeliest to work far more than is really necessary.

He calls this phenomenon overearning: when people “forego leisure to work and earn beyond their needs.”

The hypothesis

In a study published last year in the journal Psychological Science, Hsee and his collaborators found that the student participants in a series of laboratory experiments did just that — even when the researchers eliminated what they called the “normative reasons for overearning, such as enjoyment of work, uncertainty about the future, and desires to bequeath wealth to others.”

Those reasons can be real and rational motivators of overworking in the real world, but the results of Hsee’s study suggests there’s something else going on, something a bit more depressing.

The experiment

Here’s the creative paradigm they set up in the lab, which was designed to be minimalistic and controlled, not absolutely realistic:

  • In Phase I, the participant can relax and listen to music (mimicking leisure) or press a key to disrupt the music and listen to a noise (mimicking work). For every certain number of times the participant listens to the noise (e.g., 20 times), he or she earns 1 chocolate… The participant can only earn (not eat) the chocolates in Phase I and can only eat (and not earn more of) the chocolates in Phase II.
  • The computer shows the partipant a running tally of their chocolate earnings in Phase I. In Phase II, they can eat as much as they want on the spot; everything else must be left behind. Those who opt to disrupt their leisurely music-listening with button-pressing and noises so frequently that they end up with more chocolates than they can actually eat are considered “overearners.”

The researchers dub this behavior “mindless accumulation” — something that might be familiar to anyone who has ever looked up after far too many hours at work and wondered: “Why am I still here?”

This is especially counterproductive when it involves high-earners, who would be able to earn enough (and, often, do their jobs) in far fewer hours. “Regardless of consumption needs or earning rates, participants will work about the same amount — until feeling tired rather than until having earned enough,” the researchers hypothesized. Since people’s tire-out rate would be the same whether they are earning one chocolate per 20 noises or per 120, the researchers predicted that those earning more would overearn more, paying little attention to the unneeded “work” that left them with more chocolates than they could ever want.

That’s exactly what happened.

The researchers speculated that perhaps this miscalculation came from a strategy humans first developed when working too much and earning too much were not real concerns.

“To earn and accumulate as much as possible was a functional heuristic for survival,” they write. “Individuals did not need to worry about earning too much, because they could not earn too much.” They compare this to overeating — also something that’s common now, but was hardly an issue when scarcity was the norm.

John Maynard Keynes, in a famous 1930 essay predicting a time when leisure time was plentiful but we didn’t know what to do with it, may have captured this best: “We have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”


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Business Insider
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