Duke University Study Shows Why People Prefer Dead End Jobs

Dec 12, 2013
8 Min Read

When I was a child growing up in Maryland, we visited relatives in New York and Philadelphia often.  Back in the eighties, the toll booth operator job on the New Jersey turnpike was the national symbol of boredom. I remember sitting at the booth longer than we had to just so that the poor operator could have some human conversation.

Albert Camus might have been thinking of the toll booth operator when he wrote The Myth of Sisyphus. The famous essay refers to the ancient Greek story 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. In Camus’ view, the more modern worker is much like Sisyphus, working every day of his life at the exact same tasks.

In the enlightened twenty-first century, we often talk about work being meaningful, and about engaging in careers about which we feel passionate. But it turns out that at the end of the day, most people will still pick a Sisyphus-like job over an engaging one if they aren’t getting paid for the extra effort required by the latter. And in a recovering economy where salaries still have not come up to post-recession levels, this means that millions of disillusioned job seekers are selecting dead end jobs.

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 recently published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

The researchers found that even when an effort-filled job would be more interesting and enjoyable than a boring one, people tend to price themselves out of the job market because they feel their efforts need to be rewarded.

Three Studies on Effort Aversion

The researchers conducted several studies that showed how pay impacts 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.

Commented Comerford:  "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. 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 that 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.

In a third study, the researchers explored whether effort aversion could be overcome. Eighty people surveyed at airports were asked about the roles in a hypothetical film similar to the one above. Some were asked to rate the roles of workers versus onlookers 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.

What Have We Learned?

When I was writing the book How’d You Score That Gig? about dream careers, I realized that there’s actually an inverse relationship between pay and level of interest. That is, the more intriguing a job is considered to be, the less you are often paid at the entry level.

Camus would say that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the job. You have the consider the big picture, and if the money is enough to live on, isn’t it worth it to love what you do?  Financial compensation isn’t everything – just ask investment bankers who work 80 hours a week and have no time to spend their money.

Finally, because effort aversion is an unconscious process, you have to be especially careful that you aren’t falling prey without recognizing it. Be deliberate and thoughtful about any job offers you receive, weighing the pros and cons and envisioning your daily routine in each position. Every time you think about the plight of Sisyphus, you’ll be glad you did.

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