• December 2014

Why Do People Work Too Much?

When it comes to what makes you happy, does working endless hours make your list?

Probably not.

Recently, Google CEO Larry Page suggested we all might be working much harder than is necessary. “The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true,” he said, noting that some people work hard to pay rent, to put food on the table, or because they enjoy it.

But then why do some people who earn more than they need still run themselves ragged, often working to the point of misery?

Christopher K. Hsee (shown above) has a hypothesis that might explain what drives these people.

The University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor calls it “phenomenon over-earning,” and it’s marked by people who “forgo leisure to work and earn beyond their needs.”

Not surprisingly, the highest white-collar earners are likeliest to work far more than is really necessary.

In June 2013, the journal Psychological Science published Hsee’s study:

  • Phase 1: A participant can relax and listen to music (mimicking leisure) or press a key to disrupt the music and listen to a noise (mimicking work). For every certain number of times the participant listens to the noise (e.g., 20 times), he or she earns 1 chocolate. … The participant can only earn (not eat) the chocolates in Phase I and can only eat (and not earn more of) the chocolates in Phase II. The computer shows the partipant a running tally of their chocolate earnings in Phase I.
  • Phase 2: The subject can eat as much chocolate as they want on the spot; everything else must be left behind. Those who opt to disrupt their leisurely music-listening with button-pressing and noises so frequently that they end up with more chocolates than they can actually eat are considered “over-earners.” The researchers dub this behavior “mindless accumulation” — something that might be familiar to anyone who has ever looked up after far too many hours at work and wondered: “Why am I still here?”
  • The findings: This tendency to over-earn is especially counterproductive when it involves high-earners, who would be able to earn enough (and, often, still do their jobs competently) in far fewer hours. “Regardless of consumption needs or earning rates, participants will work about the same amount—until feeling tired rather than until having earned enough,” the researchers hypothesized. Since the rate at which people tire would be the same whether they are earning one chocolate per 20 noises or per 120, the researchers predicted that those earning more would over-earn more, paying little attention to the unneeded “work” that left them with more chocolates than they could ever want.

The Bottom Line

“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,” Hsee concludes. “Do people over-earn—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 over-earning are difficult.

“In this research, we introduced a minimalistic paradigm that allows researchers to study over-earning in a controlled laboratory setting. Using this paradigm, we found that individuals do over-earn, even at the cost of happiness, and that over-earning 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 over-earn 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.”

Click here to read the entire study.

Learn more about Christopher Hsee at www.chicagobooth.edu/faculty.