Why People Work Too Much, Even After They Have Enough

Do you work more than you need to, more than your corporate overlords require, even after you have plenty of money in the bank? If so, a new study might explain why you're sacrificing your leisure.

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(Photo Credit: ota_photos/Flickr)

Researchers at the University of Chicago, the University of Miami, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University designed a two-phase experiment to determine whether people "overearn" -- that is, whether they have the tendency to continue earning, beyond what they need, at the expense of relaxation and free time.

In the first phase, subjects sat in front of a computer for five minutes, wearing headsets that played their choice of either harsh white noise or music. Each subject was told that he or she would earn squares of Dove chocolate for listening the white noise a set number of times. One set of subjects had to listen the white noise fewer times to get the chocolate -- those were high earners. The other set, the low earners, had to listen to more of the white noise in order to get the reward.

Both were told that there would be a second phase, in which they could eat their chocolates. They were also asked, prior to the experiment's start, how many chocolates they thought they could eat. On average, the high-earner group predicted they could eat 3.75 chocolates.

The high earners then continued to earn, far beyond their estimates, for an average of 10.47 chocolates. They were able to eat less than half of their earnings.

The low earners, on the other hand, tended to earn less chocolate than they could eat. But most importantly, both groups chose to listen to the same amount of white noise. In other words, they worked as hard as they could, independent of the rewards.

"We introduce the concept of 'mindless accumulation,' " Christopher Hsee, lead author of the paper, tells The New York Times. Hsee is a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. "It's a waste of effort, but once people are in action, they can't stop."

What does this mean for you? Well, if you're working more than your bank account or boss requires, the explanation might be human nature. By being aware of this tendency, maybe we'll be less likely to make bad choices that trade the best things in life for a little money.

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