Choosing a job, not to mention committing to a career, can be a dizzying experience.
Not only do you have to figure out what makes sense for you now; you also need to make sure you’ll still want this role several months and years down the line.
Unfortunately, we’re notoriously poor predictors of what we’ll want in the future. Specifically, new research suggests that we underestimate how important it will be to enjoy our work and overestimate the significance of how much we’ll get paid.
In one, researchers approached 54 people working out at a gym and asked them to complete two surveys, one at the gym and one that they received via email a week later.
In the first survey, respondents indicated how important different factors were in deciding how much to exercise right now — for example, that the workout is enjoyable and that they become stronger. In the second survey, they indicated how important those same factors were in deciding how much to exercise later that week.
Enjoying the workout is an example of what researchers call “intrinsic” incentives because they come from within. On the other hand, getting stronger is an example of an “extrinsic” incentive, or a reward that comes after pursuing the activity.
Results showed that gym-goers considered intrinsic incentives much more important during the workout.
In other words, when they were at the gym with a pair of weights in hand, participants were inclined to decide how much longer to persist based on how much they were enjoying themselves. But when they were figuring out how much time they should spend exercising next week, participants weren’t nearly as concerned with how enjoyable the workout would be.
A subsequent experiment revealed that people often regret their decision to choose a more extrinsically rewarding task over a more intrinsically rewarding one.
For that experiment, the researchers recruited 120 people to either listen to a one-minute clip of “Hey, Jude” and then answer some questions for $2, or listen to an alarm clock going off for one minute and then answer some questions for $2.25.
Some participants were allowed to choose which sound they listened to; others had the option to choose, but were persuaded into one or the other condition by the researchers.
After listening to the song or the alarm clock, participants were asked to indicate how much they regretted their choice of task. Sure enough, even the participants who had been persuaded into completing a particular task were inclined to regret listening to the alarm clock, though they were paid more.
“People don’t realise how important the experience is after or before they are doing it,” study co-author Ayelet Fishbach told The Huffington Post. “We found that those doing something fun persist longer than those doing something for money. People worked harder when we made the task more interesting.”
Of course, the researchers didn’t look specifically at the role of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards in relation to career choices. But these findings might apply to job seekers weighing the importance of compensation versus their inherent enjoyment of the work.
It might seem like salary is more meaningful than enjoyment, and the researchers certainly aren’t discounting the fact that you need to hit a certain level of compensation in order to live comfortably. Yet there’s a good chance that you’ll come to regret your decision to take a well-paying job that doesn’t particularly interest you.
Ideally, we’d all be able to find jobs that pay well and allow us to do work we love. In the meantime, we’d be wise to look for jobs that afford us at least some daily pleasure, above and beyond the thrill of receiving a hefty paycheck.
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