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My grandfather did "make work" ditch digging for the WPA in the 1930s -- he hated it and he quit, despite the fact he needed the money. When he was hired on, he didn't understand he'd be doing "make work" -- it took him a while to figure out that was what it was, and the idea rubbed him the wrong way, as they used to say.

Greg: Did your grandfather ever say if other workers hated it too, for the same reason? Are people like him the majority, or a small minority?

You are being too kind to HR people. What they understand is forms.

I doubt many amateur psychologists could decipher the climactic last line of your blog. I myself asked Clever Hans but, neigh.

Nick, interesting. I think you're right but:

If people get satisfaction from successfully completing tasks, why do so many of us reveal a preference for sitting around and watching TV instead of successfully completing tasks - e.g. why do people watch cooking shows instead of cooking? Watch the Biggest Loser instead of going out and losing weight? I'm not saying these things make us happy - I remember once reading that people who spent more time spent watching TV were on average less happy.

But why do people (including me) do these kind of things? Are we programmed to sabotage our own happiness?

"[S]ometimes we also enjoy the labour itself, but only because it produces fruit." We enjoy feeling good about ourselves. To put it negatively, if I thought I was ineffective I would feel bad about myself, in a way that would spur me to attempt remedial action. The more effective I think I am in dealing with life's problems, the more favorable my view of my prospects. And my gaining a reward through labor (where the reward has more positive value than the labor has negative) is evidence for my general effectiveness. It has positive value as *news about me*.

I think Just Visiting is touching on two different points with his examples. I believe that people watch Biggest Loser and shows like that, in part to feel better about their own circumstances, whether through being relatively better off or through a feeling of fellowship. Watching a cooking show, on the other hand, could possibly have educational aspects. Knowing how to cook the souffle might make someone feel a little more effective. Add in the social benefits of sharing our viewing experience with our peer groups... a very tangled skein of reasons for sitting in front of the tube.

One of the best-validated effects in social psychology is that extrinsic rewards tend to crowd out intrinsic motivation.

The distinction between that which we enjoy and that which we do as a means to an end is oftentimes fuzzy.

This used to be a standard economists joke when I started working. "Most jobs are marginally better than day-time TV."

Nick, you're definitely right. The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely has a chapter about this subject if you're interested; he's shown experimentally that productivity is higher when work is more meaningful.


So does fun constitute compensation?  I guess people would try to demand higher compensation for less fun work.  They don't seem to be having much success though.


Laziness, at least in some members of the tribe, is definitely an evolutionary advantage. "How can I slack off more?" must be one of the greatest sources of innovative thinking known to humanity.  Imagine if we derived positive utility from work.  Why would anyone invent a shovel if they could derive countless hours of additional joy just digging with their bare hands?

"I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Most often two of these qualities come together. The officers who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Those who are stupid and lazy make up around 90% of every army in the world, and they can be used for routine work. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!"

General Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr[1] von Hammerstein-Equord

K - I'm just imagining how much Nick laughed when he read your last comment (and then wondered why he hasn't (yet) been invited to join the senior administration).

The evolutionary advantage conferred by laziness would be my preferred explanation too (as evidenced by my dog, curled up asleep beside me).

reason - a potential downside of the multi-channel universe where European football matches are shown in the middle of the North American day?

Bryan Caplan has noted that employment makes people much happier than income alone would predict:

Charles Murray argued a little while back in a speech titled "The Happiness of the People" that European-style welfare states make for "pleasant lives" but not "human flourishing": "To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don't get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché "nothing worth having comes easily"). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences."

TGGP - Charles Murray's claim isn't backed up by the happiness research. See, for example, Shelley Phipps' chapter in this book: http://www.springer.com/social+sciences/well-being/book/978-90-481-3376-5.

One thing that European-style welfare states do is allow people not to move around too much, and maintain close ties with home and family, which is a big source of happiness. The divorce rates (in Western Europe anyways) are much lower than in the US, and divorce is strongly correlated with unhappiness. European welfare states create walkable cities, so people can get about on their own two feet (+buses or bicycles), so people are healthier and thus happier. Contrast that with the US, where families are fractured as people move to obtain work, people live their lives in cars in search of the perfect home and the American dream...

Shouldn't all work done in the private sector be meaningful since someone is willing to pay for it to be done? Nick, are you just arguing that when there is a disconnect between the employer and the employee (e.g., the employer has not explained why the task is important, or the employer has explained why the task is important but the employee still thinks it is unimportant)? If so, in many cases the loss in worker happiness could be solved through increased information disclosure. This is of course anecdotal, but I find that when teaching undergrads, if I don't provide real world examples of why something is important I find students are much less likely to engage in debate and discussion on the topic.

Frances: to paraphrase, why do people make themselves miserable slouching around watching TV when they could make themselves happy by doing and accomplishing something? Dunno. But I'm sure the answer isn't just ignorance. Because sometimes I know I would feel better if I got up and did something, but I still don't. Weakness of will? (Not that that really amounts to an explanation).

Philotweet. I've been thinking about that. My daughter got good news about her abilities. I got bad news (about my ability at fixing cars). And so you could fit our experiences back into an instrumentalist framework that way. Like a student who is happy he has got an A in the exam. It means he will get a good job and high future income and lots of consumption goods, which will make him happy. And he's happy right now in anticipation.

But it doesn't really fit the experience, say, of the satisfaction of a worker about to retire that he did his last job well.

bork: "The distinction between that which we enjoy and that which we do as a means to an end is oftentimes fuzzy."

Here's another example where it's fuzzy. Suppose someone hunts for a living. Now suppose you give him free meat. In economics, we argue you can never make someone worse off by giving him something for free, because he could always reject the gift, or throw it away, if he's rational. But in this case, if you give the hunter free meat, he can't hunt any more. Sure, he can still chase and kill animals, but it is no longer possible for him to hunt in the way he used to hunt. Hunting is now play, not work. It doesn't mean the same thing. It's not the same activity. It's just going through the motions. It's just make-work.

K: usually, low pay tends to be correlated with bad working conditions. This seems to contradict Adam Smith's theory of compensating wage differentials. If all workers were equally capable of doing all jobs, then bad jobs would need good pay to get anyone willing to work in them. But if people are different, and some workers are in higher demand than others, those in lower demand will get worse outcomes, in pay and/or working conditions.

Yep. Good laugh at the General's story.

TGGP: Good find on the Bryan Caplan post!

JDUB: From my own experience, a worker who is thinking "why the hell are we doing this? What's the point? It's a waste of time. We should all be doing something else." is less productive as well as less happy.

More anecdotal evidence against the Murray thesis and an emphasis on instrumentalism over leisure generally:

The pleasure is implicitly included in W, where W becomes a function of l (labour supply of an individual) as well as L (aggregate labour supply) ... there has to be a paper with that in it, and attempts at estimating it surely ;-)

With regards to motivation and why people do things, I strongly recommend taking the time out of your day to watch this, if you haven't seen it or heard about it.

It basically tosses out many economic assumptions with regards to motivation.

Hi all - I never thought an economist would say "Eat drink, and enjoy your toil" but isn't that what this boils down to? There is a great quote by Zuckerberg (sp?), the Facebook inventor, about the psychologizing in "The Social Network". The punchline was along the lines of "the film-makers come up with deep reasons why we were driven to do something and they forget that it is cool to build something."

Dan Ariely and meaning in work: there is lots of stuff on this out there and the key thing here is that monetary rewards help people do simple, well-understood repetitive tasks. Attaching a monetary reward to a creative task diminishes results.

There is a social/cultural/religious motivation. Friends who once helped me out when I needed (much) effort from them were the sort of people who were pleased to help when needed. There is a global optimization in working hard for the joy and creativity of it. You know, kinda like what you do on this blog.

On the subject of laziness, Nick, why couldn't you be bothered to go consult with the Psych Department instead of conducting Amateur Hour here on your blog?

Is there a social psychologist in the house?

Here is a puzzle for you. My wife doesn't have a paid job. But she works like hell at things she volunteered to do. And she complains about the stress all the time. So yes - feeling useful is more important than money. But why does she complain about it? She chose to do it.

A while ago I blogged about why Sponge Bob Square Pants is so happy: http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2010/06/spongebob-squidward-and-the-economics-of-identity.html. I put it down to the economics of identity: the task that he was doing (flipping burgers) reaffirmed his sense of himself. His coworker was miserable because he saw himself as a musician.

Nick's argument would suggest that Spongebob is happy because he is accomplishing meaningful tasks - making burgers.

But what people consider meaningful work is tied up with their sense of themselves - Squidward gets no satisfaction from making burgers because he sees the task as beneath his talents/abilities.

Nick likes fixing cars. But would he be happy earning his bread as a mechanic?

Determinant: Good question.

Because I'm lazy? Because I wrote the post in anger and frustration over the axle seal?

Anyway, your question jogged my memory. I remembered going to a talk that Brian Little, a psychologist at Carleton and Harvard, gave to the Economics department. In a nutshell (as far as I remember and understood it): happiness is working on a project.

If true, what are the macro-implications? (Something I should have said more about in the post).

1. GDP is just the sum of different people's projects. It doesn't matter much what GDP is, as long as everyone is happily working on some project that *they* think is important. Consumption is not the end of economic activity (pace Jevons again), it's just a by-product of our projects.

2. Involuntary unemployment is a really bad thing, because it means they don't have a project.

3. Don't worry about taxes, subsidies, distortions, etc. The exact allocation of resources doesn't really matter much.

4. A market economy is probably a good thing, not because of the first theorem of welfare economics, but because it lets lots of people choose to work on whatever project they find they can do and which they think is worth doing.

Nick: "A market economy is probably a good thing, not because of the first theorem of welfare economics, but because it lets lots of people choose to work on whatever project they find they can do and which they think is worth doing."

Oddly enough, academics vigorously argue for government-funded research grants that allow them to choose to work on whatever project they find they can do and which they think is worth doing - the buzzword is "curiousity-driven research."

In your market economy, lots of people are entrepreneurs, choosing their own course of action.

The image in my mind right now is Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjarLbD9r30 or the more bleak Metropolis - people as cogs in machines...


I find your last point very interesting because I thought you were going in the opposite direction.

I suspect many people's side projects that they do for fun have very little market value. i.e. Gardening is much different from farming, I may like the pictures I draw or the music I write, but if no one else does, there is no market for it, etc. and to touch on some earlier points about ditch digging, just to fill it up again, it's interesting because my favourite toy as a child was Lego, I would build something, take it apart, build something new, take it apart, etc. I understand it isn't a direct parallel, but it's also not so different. (I guess it's overly simplistic to say that any repetitive task eventually becomes drudgery?)

What I thought you were leaning towards up until point 4 was a more socialist economy with short work days and short work weeks, giving the populous ample time to work on the projects they really care about, while still making them slug away at the jobs there is a market demand for.

I suppose that's still a market economy, just one with a highly regulated work force.

My psych 101 reference:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Physiological => Safety => Love/belonging => Esteem => Self-actualization


"My hunch is that aggregate labour supply would be a lot less if people simply maxed U(C,L) subject to P.C=W.L the way we assume they do."
Actually, I think that you're implying that we have misspecified U(C,L). Furthermore your idea doesn't only have implications for the quantity of labour supplied, but for the sector in which it is supplied as well. I'm not sure what this means for the fundamental theorems, but I can immagine that it would complicate things....Ie: think of gains from trade--there are gains to be made from trading in labour unless you live in an area where the gains are only to be made by supplying labour in a sector that you don't enjoy working in. Sorry this is a bit unclear, but I'm supplying labour at the moment.


Frances: well, sometimes our project is to join someone else's project. We get a job. But we like to think the job is part of a project that needs doing, and is worth doing, and that we are doing our part in it well.

James: I think we have paid projects (we call work) and unpaid projects. Funny you should mention farming. I am the only one of my family, for very many generations, who is not a farmer. Most farmers I have known (my father especially) are *very* into farming. They live and breathe farming in exactly the same way that dedicated economics professors live and breathe economics. When they meet socially, they talk farming. And it's very much part of their identity. "Those who can farm; those who can't...have to go off and get a job." (Getting a job as an economics prof is seen as just about respectable, about on a par with getting a religious calling and becoming a vicar: a bit strange, but forgivable.)

JVFM: Like most economists, I could never buy into Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There are always trade-offs, at the margin. People take dangerous jobs if the pay is high enough.

Allan: Yes, i expect I'm saying that U(C,L) is misspecified. But actually it's more than that. I'm saying that sometimes we cannot specify the U() independently of the constraints. Means and end cannot be specified separately. I don't enjoy lying under my car. But I do enjoy lying under my car if I am fixing it by lying under it. I don't enjoy digging ditches. But I do enjoy digging ditches if I'm draining my garden; and I enjoy the drained garden as well.

More macro implications: wage rigidity? "If they cut our pay, it means they don't see what we are doing as valuable or worthwhile, so our job is just make-work, so there's not much point in our trying to do it well".

JVFM: Like most economists, I could never buy into Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There are always trade-offs, at the margin. People take dangerous jobs if the pay is high enough.

No doubt. Tort law, for example, is based upon "the reasonable man". Not the marginal man. One size does not fit all.

I daresay, in your circumstance, fixing one's oil seal is less likely to be based upon safety and more likely to be based upon accomplishment.

"Means and end cannot be specified separately."
I'm not sure I follow you here. Here's why:

"I do enjoy digging ditches if I'm draining my garden..."

you're consuming pride. Ergo, misspecified utility function.

"I don't enjoy digging ditches."
Because the capital owner or the client gets to consume the pride.

PS: very interesting topic.

Allan: Yes, i'm not as clear as I want to be. Try this:

1. I spend one hour digging a ditch to nowhere. And the puddle drains by sheer accident, nothing to do with my ditch.

2. I spend one hour digging a ditch and this causes the puddle to drain.

I say I am much happens if 2 happens than if 1 happens.

BTW, I am much happier today, because I've just learned that I didn't screw up installing the axle seal. *The axle on the car was not the right axle!!! Some previous owner/garage must have installed an axle off a different make or model of car!!* So now my feeling of self-worth (pride) is restored a bit. (Though I still should have been able to figure out the axle was wrong.)

Robyn Dawes said there was hardly any evidence in favor of Maslow's hierarchy:

Oh yes! Check this post just in from Chris Dillow: http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2010/11/busyness.html

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