Why People Work For Rewards They’ll Never Get to Enjoy

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, The...

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Why do rich people work so much?

The quick, glib answer is that hard work is what made them rich in the first place. But then, why keep grinding away? At what point does it make sense to stop accumulating riches and start enjoying them? Are we even capable of knowing when enough is enough?

In the past, leisure time was seen as a happy privilege of the upper class. Working long hours might have been the fate of the benighted factory worker or scullery maid, but the aristocrat needed his free time—lazy afternoons to ride horses and smoke pipes and master all those intricately choreographed, sexually charged group dances. Today, wealthy young lawyers and bankers work fifteen-hour days, skip vacations, and earn more money than they have time to spend. “Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were,” James Surowiecki wrote recently in a New Yorker essay. “By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating.” Working long hours has become something worth bragging about—a badge of honour rather than a necessary evil.

There have been plenty of theories about why people accumulate more riches than they could possibly spend—from a desire to keep up with neighbours and peers, to simple status seeking. In a study published in Psychological Science last year, however, researchers suggest the impetus could have more deep-rooted origins.

In a series of experiments, the researchers constructed a miniature paradigm meant to imitate the work/leisure balance. In real life, there are always good excuses for earning more money than you can spend: you love your work, you’re uncertain about the future, you want to make sure you have enough cash left over to buy your grandchildren a spot in an Ivy League school. Here, the experimenters tried to control for these reasons in order to determine if there was a more fundamental reason people overearn.

The experiment consisted of two phases. First, participants sat down at a computer wearing headphones. They could either listen to pleasant music (representing leisure), or press a key to interrupt the music with harsh noise (work). Listening to blasts of noise would earn the participants chocolate, which couldn’t be consumed until the next phase. The test subjects were divided into two categories: high-earners, who got a chocolate every 20 times they listened to the noise, and low-earners who had to hear the noise 120 to earn their reward. The participants were told that any chocolates they couldn’t eat had to be left behind. Their only objective was to make themselves as happy as possible.

The researchers write that the experiment “simulates a microcosmic life with a fixed life span.” First you choose between leisure and work, then you consume what you’ve earned. As in real life, you can’t take it with you.

In a rational world, you’d expect participants to earn as much chocolate as they thought they could enjoy, then sit back and listen to music. The lower earners would need to subject themselves to more noise in order to earn they same amount as the high-rollers, but presumably everyone would stop once they’d earned their fill.

In reality, researchers found their test subjects earning far more chocolate than anyone would ever hope to consume. High-earners earned an average of 10.74 chocolates but only ate 4.26. They needlessly exposed themselves to unpleasant noises, then left the majority of their earnings on the table.

Low-earners, meanwhile, earned slightly less chocolate than they could eat, but listened to about the same number of sounds. This suggests that both groups weren’t considering the optimal results, but rather how much work they could bear. Instead of trying to create the most enjoyable experience, they unthinkingly worked as much as possible, stockpiling useless treasure.

The researchers call this behaviour “mindless accumulation”—the tendency for people to forgo leisure to work towards rewards they’ll never be able to use. They argue that it’s a distinctly modern problem. For much of human history, earning rates were low and people needed to work as much as possible just to survive. The idea that you could “overearn” simply wasn’t realistic. If you’re one of today’s highly paid office workers, however, earning comes comparatively easily, yet the drive to hoard as much as possible remains. The researchers compare overearning to overeating, another distinctly modern problem caused by a life of surprising abundance.

In the researchers’ experiments, they also point to a simple, if radical solution. In a follow-up study, they introduced a simple innovation: a cap on earnings. While one group was left to mindlessly accumulate as per usual, another group was shown a message after they’d earned a certain number of chocolates explaining they’d reached their limit. They could continue to listen to harsh noise if they wanted to (nobody did), but they wouldn’t earn anything for it. Afterward, researchers asked participants to rate their feelings. The group with the earnings cap reported feeling much happier than the control group. They weren’t forcing themselves to listen to harsh noise, mindlessly putting their nose to the grindstone to earn useless rewards. With the choice taken out of their hands, they were forced to relax.