Research: People May Choose Boring Jobs If They Don't Think They Are Being Paid Enough For a Challenge

September 6, 2013
Behavioral Science

Prof Peter Ubel explains why some people put too much emphasis on wages versus happiness

Most people would say they would prefer to work in a job with interesting and fulfilling opportunities. But new research shows that people may pick a boring job over a stimulating one if they perceive they aren't being paid enough for extra effort.

Duke University Fuqua School of Business marketing professor Peter Ubel and David Comerford, an assistant professor at Stirling University, explored the idea of "effort aversion," or why people choose to put forth less effort even if it means less personal satisfaction. The results of their studies, "Effort Aversion: Job Choice and Compensation Decisions Overweigh Effort," were published last month in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

"We found even when an effortful job would be more interesting and enjoyable than one requiring less effort, people might price themselves out of the job market because they feel their effort needs to be rewarded," Ubel said.

The researchers conducted several studies that showed how wages impact a job seeker's willingness to take on more challenges. In the first experiment, 144 people answered a questionnaire offering the choice of two short-term jobs at a cultural festival. Participants could either choose to be an usher (which would require publicizing the event, cleaning up after and escorting performers) or a monitor (which would only require alerting a security guard if needed.) Results showed that while most people (82 percent) preferred the job of usher, 36 percent would only take the job if it paid more than the monitor.

"Ask someone which of two jobs they like better, and they will often pick the more interesting job, even if it requires more mental or physical effort," Comerford said. "But ask them how much the two jobs should pay, and now that their mind is focused on wages, they often conclude that all that extra effort ought to be rewarded, otherwise they will take the boring job."

In the second study, 74 graduate students agreed to take part in a short film. They could choose the role of worker (which would require doing a word puzzle for almost five minutes) or on-looker (sit and watch others.) Again, results showed most people found the role of worker more enjoyable (66 percent), but of that group  only 18 percent agreed to solve the word puzzles without regard to whether they would receive more money than the onlookers.

"What these two studies showed us is if you put the issue of wages in front of people, all of a sudden that becomes a  primary concern. They are focusing on what they perceive as fair compensation, rather than nonmonetary aspects of the job, such as social value or even whether the job is interesting," Ubel said. 

In a third study, researchers wanted to understand if "effort aversion" could be easily overcome. Eighty people surveyed at airports were asked about a hypothetical film-shooting scenario similar to the previous study. Some were asked to rate the roles of workers versus on-looker based on enjoyment before considering wages.  A second group was asked to set wages for the jobs before thinking about the enjoyment.

The people who considered enjoyment first were more likely to pick the job they said they would enjoy most. However, the results were not statistically significant enough to conclude that "effort aversion" could be overcome by simply thinking about enjoyment before wages.

"I can see lots of good reasons why your gut would tell you not to work unless you get paid more than you'd get for doing nothing," Comerford said, "but the lesson I take from these studies is that that reaction risks leaving you bored and unhappy." 

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