The Washington Post

Why people pick boring jobs

(istockphoto) (istockphoto)

Would you rather work in a stimulating, challenging job or a routine one filled with mundane repetition?

Almost everyone would say they prefer the former. But a new study finds that people typically contradict themselves once salaries enter the decision. If the two jobs pay the same, people often opt to put out less effort, not more.

Researchers Peter Ubel of Duke University and David Comerford of the University of Stirling call their theory "effort aversion."

They find that the amount of effort people are asked to put out—if they are not compensated accordingly for it—often holds priority sway over their choices. This finding goes against classic economic theory, which predicts that effort is just one factor among many that people consider when deciding what will yield the most "utility," or relative satisfaction to the individual.

Their study conducted three experiments to test this idea. In the first one, they presented respondents with a hypothetical choice between a boring job and an engaging one. The former was to monitor an art gallery during a cultural festival and alert a security guard if he or she saw something suspicious. Reading, listening to music and talking on the phone were strictly prohibited during the job. The latter, more engaging job was to serve as an usher, helping to publicize the event, escort performers to venues and clean up when the performances were over. Unsurprisingly, 82 percent of the respondents chose the more interesting job of being an usher. And yet, more than a third would only take the job if it paid more than the monitor.

In a second lab study, meanwhile, grad students were taped in a short video. In it, they were assigned to play the role of either a "worker" (who spent five minutes solving a puzzle) or an "onlooker" (who sat quietly doing nothing). Those who got to solve the puzzles said they enjoyed themselves more. Yet, more interestingly, 19 percent of the participants demanded a higher wage to be a "worker." In a final third study, the researchers tried to see if effort aversion could be overcome by first asking people to think about enjoyment rather than what they'd be paid. Those results were inconclusive.

It's not terribly surprising that we'd prefer to have stimulating, interesting jobs than dull ones, and that we expect to be paid for our extra work, even if that does test the conventions of economic theory. What piqued my interest in the research is what it seems to illuminate about the pent-up demand in workplaces worldwide.

After years of economic uncertainty, workers have repeatedly been asked to do more and more for the same (if not less) pay. Meanwhile, the idea has really caught on that boosting engagement, offering more stretch assignments and teaching new skills on the job can help organizations make up for a plateau in wages.

Maybe it's true that feeling challenged can keep us around until salaries really start rising again. But if Ubel's and Comerford's study is correct, it could also mean that all those stretch goals will just make people start looking even sooner for better paying jobs—or at least ones for that require a little less effort.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Why slackers still get bonuses

New data show only 30 percent of workers engaged in their jobs

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
In defense of dads
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
How to keep your child safe in the water
How your online data can get hijacked
Play Videos
How to avoid harmful chemicals in school supplies
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
How much can one woman eat?
Play Videos
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to get organized for back to school
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Next Story
Jena McGregor · October 4, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.