I’ve been reading some fascinating research on behavioral economics lately. I recently stumbled across a new study from the Chicago Booth School of Business on what the authors are calling “mindless accumulation.”
This term is a vivid description of our instinct to accumulate more than we can consume, even when doing so bring us unhappiness. Here is the abstract from the research:
“High productivity and high earning rates brought about by modern technologies make it possible for people to work less and enjoy more, yet many continue to work assiduously to earn more. Do people overearn—forgo leisure to work and earn beyond their needs? This question is understudied, partly because in real life, determining the right amount of earning and defining overearning are difficult.
In this research, we introduced a minimalistic paradigm that allows researchers to study overearning in a controlled laboratory setting. Using this paradigm, we found that individuals do overearn, even at the cost of happiness, and that overearning is a result of mindless accumulation—a tendency to work and earn until feeling tired rather than until having enough.
Supporting the mindless-accumulation notion, our results show, first, that individuals work about the same amount regardless of earning rates and hence are more likely to overearn when earning rates are high than when they are low, and second, that prompting individuals to consider the consequences of their earnings or denying them excessive earnings can disrupt mindless accumulation and enhance happiness.”
To explore the notion of mindless accumulation, the researchers constructed an experiment in two phases. In the first phase, subjects sat for five minutes in front of a computer wearing a headset, and had the choice of listening to pleasant music or to obnoxious-sounding white noise.
They were told they could earn pieces of Dove chocolate when they listened to the white noise a certain number of times. Some participants had to listen fewer times to get each piece of chocolate, making them “high earners”; some had to listen more times, making them “low earners.”
All were told that there would be a second phase to the experiment, also lasting five minutes, in which they could eat the chocolate they earned. But they were told they would forfeit any chocolate they couldn’t consume, and they were asked how much they expected to be able to eat.
On average, people in the high-earner group predicted that they could consume 3.75 chocolates.But when it came time to “earn” chocolates, they accumulated well beyond their estimate. On average, they listened to enough white noise to earn 10.74 chocolates. Then they actually ate less than half of that amount.
In other words, they subjected themselves to harsh noise to earn more than they could consume, or predicted they could consume.
The impulse seemed less pronounced, even mixed, with the low earners. They earned less chocolate than they predicted they could eat. But the high earners and the low earners listened to about the same amount of obnoxious noise in the five-minute period. Dr. Christopher Hsee, one of the authors, said this strongly suggested that both groups were driven by the same thing: not by how much they need, but by how much work they could withstand.
I can see the correlation between chocolates and dollar bills. There are workaholics who can never seem to earn enough. Even with bank accounts the size of Texas, somehow they need more. Some honestly believe they’ll get to enjoy it all once they hit 65. If they hit 65, that is.
Then there are the individuals earning a fantastically high dollar per hour wage, far higher than those in other countries, or their ancestors, and yet they live paycheck to paycheck. This is a sad result of materialism and what I would call mindless accumulation.
And of course, we must also consider the financial independence loving, high savings rate, world traveling freelancers that dominate the online world. They seem to have a grasp on the concept of enjoying life, cutting back hours, or exiting the rat race at a young age. But I don’t think they are exempt from these findings. How many of us worry if enough is enough? We’re still out there grinding away to save a big golden nest egg filled with dollars. But at what point is it enough?
At the same time, life does have its obligations. Money is a necessity, and as exciting as unemployment may be, I believe that I have an obligation to work hard, take care of my own, and be a productive human being. So working too little and quitting too soon is no solution at all.
At the heart of this study is the question of priorities. How can we earn enough to live, while avoiding earning too much at the expense of enjoying life? It’s a tough question to answer, but I think limiting expenses allows much more freedom in that choice.
On a side note, this was a rather simple study, and I do wonder if the results are applicable in the bigger picture of real life. After all, happiness is a difficult thing to measure, and it comes in many forms.
What’s your take?