In a talk last year, 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. His basic hypothesis is that people work until they are beat, instead of working until they have “enough.” That means it’s the highest earners among the white-collar set 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.”
In a 2013 study published 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.
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 participant 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 behaviour “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.
From the lab to the office
While Hsee’s laboratory experiment was clever, it hardly replicates real life. Participating in a study is, in most important ways, not like a real job; hearing an unpleasant noise is not “work;” and chocolate is not money.
John Carney, in a CNBC column critiquing the research, went further. “The test conditions are so artificial that the study may be largely irrelevant to the real world,” he argued. “Rational behaviour sometimes looks silly in a psychologist’s lab.”
Still, Hsee’s experiment captures an element of something that we can see playing out all around us. The motivating factors may be more complex, but the result is largely the same: an excess of work and “mindless accumulation.”
Many people work hard their whole lives, planning to finally enjoy the fruits of their labour in retirement — but then those lucky few for whom it’s financially feasible forget to ever actually slow down. “They may later regret overly virtuous behaviour and feel they missed out on the pleasures of life,” Carey K. Morewedge of Boston University writes, in the “Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making.”
The internet, email, and mobile phones have paradoxically made many of us report that we are both more productive and logging more hours at work. How can that be? In a comprehensive post on the outmoded idea that technology would lighten our workloads, Matt Novak explains that it’s a quaint notion that’s been largely abandoned. “The prospect of working less and enjoying more leisure time used to be the great futuristic promise of midcentury America,” he writes, at Paleofuture. “Today it’s little more than a punchline.”
While our overall working hours in the US have in fact declined slightly (when you include housework), technology has not yet brought a radical shift in the amount of work we do. Our propensity to overwork and overearn might be to blame.
To be fair, Larry Page seems to get this. He didn’t argue that we would be working less — only that we didn’t need to continue working so much. “A lot of people aren’t happy if they don’t have anything to do,” he acknowleged.
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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