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Fri May 24, 2013, 04:41 PM

Study: A Little Forethought Can Cure the Urge Toward "Mindless Accumulation"

Study: A Little Forethought Can Cure the Urge Toward "Mindless Accumulation"
At the beginning of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes made a bold but logical prediction (pdf): In the long run, humanity was solving its economic problems, so that by 2030, in "progressive countries," a 15-hour work week would be the norm. Now, 17 years short of 2030, the world seems to have fulfilled Keynes' prophecy that we would be eight times better off economically than they were when he was writing. So where is the leisure he foresaw? Why are we all still working like fiends? In this paper, Christopher K. Hsee and his co-authors suggest that at least part of the explanation is psychological. Where rational economic creatures would work until they had earned enough to satisfy their needs, Homo sapiens has a propensity for "mindless accumulation": Working until you can't work any more, thereby earning way more than you need. In a series of lab experiments, the researchers write, they've isolated this tendency to "overearning" and found hints of a possible cure.

In their first experiment, 29 women and 26 men were each put in front of a computer monitor with a headset, on which pleasant piano music would play. For the next five minutes, the volunteer had a choice: Keep listening (ie, enjoy a bit of leisure time), or push a key and hear an irritating sound for a fifth of a second. For this annoying task (ie, work), they would be rewarded with a miniature Dove bar. Half the group was told it would take 20 noises to earn one chocolate; the other half got a much lower wage: 120 noises for one chocolate. In the second half of the experiment, the volunteers got their "pay" and could eat as much of it as they pleased. But, as in life, they couldn't take any chocolate with them when they left. So the volunteers had a clear incentive to "work" for as much chocolate as they could enjoy in the lab, and no reason to work for more.

Nonetheless, those in the high-wage group (one chocolate for 20 noises) "overearned" by a wide margin: As a whole, they worked enough to get nearly 11 Dove candies per person, even though they actually ate less than five per person. (There was an outlier—one hungry loon who earned 50 chocolates and ate 28 of them—which created some odd statistics but didn't alter the overall results.) Meanwhile, the low-wage people (one chocolate for 120 noises) earned only an average of two and a half Dove bars each. This was, nonetheless, more than they wanted to eat; they too left some chocolate on the table.

So, the experimenters write, they've shown that their volunteers will work earn more than they need, piling up chocolate that they'll never eat. And this tendency was much more pronounced in the "high-wage" group.

This fascinating study found what appears to be a drive in modern populations to earn more than they will ever need, even though it doesn't make them happy. Read it through and you will find that they also found that, with proper framing, people can be convinced to stop earning once they've earned enough and be happy.

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