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What Makes a Workaholic: Passion or Impulse?

Think you work so much because you're passionate about your gig or need the cash? Maybe, or maybe you're being driven by an impulse.
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When we work we generally feel like we’re striving for something. Sometimes that’s enough cash to cover payroll and the car payment, and sometimes it’s something less concrete like a sense of pride and accomplishment, but whatever the reason, most of us feel that we put in the long hours we do for fairly rational reasons.

But a new study suggests that especially for high earners, the drive to work may be a lot less rational than we think. If humans were as clear-eyed as economic theory posits us to be (and we like to think that we are) then we’d stop working once we achieved whatever goal we set for ourselves, be that humble sustenance or fabulous riches and worldwide fame.

But give a volunteer the chance to do something mildly unpleasant like listen to irritating noise in exchange for chocolate and it turns out they’ll mindlessly keep working well past the point their craving for chocolate is satiated (in the experiment participants weren’t allowed to take the chocolate home or save it for later). United Academics explains the research in more detail:

Students were told how many bars they would ‘earn’ and could decide how long they kept listening. One group would earn six times more bars than the other group for listening to the same amount of noise.

These high-earners tended to overearn a lot. They would keep listening until they earned more chocolate bars then they actually wanted to eat. On average they left more than half of the earned chocolates on the table. This wasn’t just because the students overestimated their own appetite. The students predicted relatively well how much bars they would eat.

It probably has to do more with mindless accumulation, the researchers thought. While earning, people often don’t calculate the benefits of their own work.

One way to understand this is to draw a parallel to the trouble many of us experience regulating another appetite -- the one for food. The HBR Blog Network points out the similarity in its brief write up of the study: “The researchers compare overearning to overeating: In the past, people earned so little that they were driven to earn as much as possible, but today, productivity advancements enable many to overearn, a behavior whose negatives include foregoing the pleasures of leisure and family time.”

Once your family is well provided for, your workaholism, in other words, may be roughly the equivalent of mindlessly continuing to shove chips into your mouth long after you’re full. Rationally, you know it’s not sensible, but thanks to a deep-seated impulse, it’s hard to turn down stuff when it’s in front of us because we’re hard wired to fear scarcity despite the fact that some of us now live in a world of abundance.

Granted, as problems go, knowing when to stop earning is a really good one to have, so if you think this research might apply to you, than first take a moment to count your blessings that this is what passes for a difficulty in your life. Then consider what the research suggests about how to tame your drive to "overearn." In another experiment in which volunteers “earned” jokes, the researchers found that setting a target number of jokes ahead of time made participants far more likely to stop working at a reasonable point.

Taking a moment to be similarly thoughtful about your goals for your work could yield similar dividends, United Academics concludes. Those who thought about how many jokes they’d like to hear “enjoyed their jokes better. It even appeared that the less jokes, the more enjoyable students rated the reward. So, if you just managed to get a salary raise, remember to benefit from it. You now have to work less to earn the same amount of money. How much do you need to be happy?”

Have you thought about how much is enough when it comes to your career?

 

 

Last updated: Jul 15, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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