Why Do People Agree To Work In Boring Jobs?

In the essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," philosopher Albert Camus — who would have turned 100 on Thursday — explored the nature of boring work. There's new psychological research into why people end up in boring jobs.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, one of Camus' most famous essays, "The Myth of Sisyphus," has caught the attention of NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who joins us each week to discuss interesting social science research. He's looking at what Camus said about the daily grind today. Hey, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So remind us first, if you can, "The Myth of Sisyphus." It really was about a daily grind.

VEDANTAM: Right. It's a famous essay by Camus; and it looks at a Greek myth about a man who's condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill, watch it roll down, and then repeat the cycle for all eternity. And at one point, Camus connects this myth to the fate of the modern worker. He says the work man of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd.

GREENE: And you've seen some new research that seems to drive that home.

VEDANTAM: I think so, David. There's new psychological research out of Duke University. I spoke with Peter Ubel, along with a colleague, David Comerford. He's looked at people who do boring work. He asked me to imagine applying for a job at a museum where the job was to stand around for several hours a day telling people not to touch the paintings.

GREENE: We've all seen those people.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Ubel says there's a difference between how you think about the job when you're applying for it, and your actual experience of such a job.

PETER UBEL: At the time, it might sound like a wonderful job - I just stand there and do nothing, and they pay me for it. Wow; that sounds great. But now, imagine standing there all day long while people are walking about the museum enjoying themselves. You're not even allowed to really talk to them much. I cannot imagine a more boring job.

VEDANTAM: So I think the thing that he's talking about here, David, is the idea that when you're anticipating the kind of work that you want to do, how you think about it might be very different than the actual experience of the job, when you're doing it.

GREENE: What explains that gap? Is it just the matter of a bad job description, or is there something else going on?

UBEL: No. Ubel and Comerford think there's something else; that when we think about jobs that we have to do, we often are confronted by a host of different things to think about. And it's difficult to think about all those things at once and so we simplify it, and we think about just one or two of the characteristics of the job. So if I was to tell you, David, that there was a job opportunity and you had to choose between living in sunny Southern California and in freezing Michigan, which would you choose?

GREENE: Probably Michigan. I'm a Pittsburgher. I like the middle of the country. I like snow. So I think I'd go with Michigan.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) That was totally the wrong answer, David.

GREENE: Sorry.

VEDANTAM: But anyway, the point is, the question like that makes you think about the weather because, you know, I said sunny Southern California and freezing Michigan. But there are lots of other factors at play, right? There's traffic jams. There's the cost of living. And most people don't think about those things because you simplify the decision into one or two sort of factors.

And one of the factors Ubel and Comerford think we use is this phenomenon called effort aversion, which is that when we think about work and potential jobs, we pick the job that involves the least effort.

GREENE: This is the connection with the guy in the museum. I mean, I suppose that he decides to take this job because he thinks, you know, I get to sit in this lovely museum all day long, get paid and not have to work all that hard.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. Now, it's fair to say, David, of course, that lots of people don't have choices in the work they do. In this economy, a lot of people are just lucky to have a job.

GREENE: True.

VEDANTAM: But I think what Ubel and Comerford are basically saying is even when we have a choice, we often end up picking the more boring job. They ran this experiment with business school students. They sat the students in a classroom and said: For the next five minutes, you will do absolutely nothing - no iPhones, no computers - and we'll pay you $2.50.

But they gave them an option. They said: Instead of sitting and doing nothing, you could solve these really difficult word puzzles. How much would you want us to pay you?

UBEL: We found that a large majority of the students said we'd have to pay them more than $2.50 to solve the word puzzles, and yet when we actually finished the five minutes and asked them how much they enjoyed those five minutes, the people solving the word puzzles enjoyed the five minutes significantly more. And yet very few of them said yeah, pay me $2 and I'd be happy to do word puzzles 'cause at least I'll be having fun.

GREENE: So they thought they should be paid more to do these puzzles, thinking it was harder work. But actually, doing something during that time actually turned out to be more interesting for them.

UBEL: Exactly. And I think there's a connection here with the world of Camus, David. I think both Ubel and Camus are basically saying when you make choices, make them consciously. Make them deliberately. Don't let unconscious biases guide you. Camus would even go a step further and say, even when choices are forced on you, live your life with your eyes open because meaning doesn't lie in the work, it lies in what you bring to the work.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks, as always.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: NPR's Shankar Vedantam - he's on Twitter @HiddenBrain. And you're listening to NPR News.

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