Science: Worker Burnout and Taking Risks

Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam, who writes the weekly Department of Human Behavior column was online Monday, June 9 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss this week's Science Page story about why workers feel burnout.

He was joined by Clifford Winston, an economist at the Brookings Institution, who can answer questions about this week's Department of Human Behavior column, which focuses on taking risks. Winston studies the unintended consequences of various interventions.

The transcript follows.


Shankar Vedantam: Welcome to this online chat to discuss my Department of Human Behavior column today about unintended consequences of interventions, and also my science page story today that suggests that perceptions of unfairness play a powerful role in whether employees experience burnout. I am happy to take questions on either topic.

For column-related questions, I am joined by Cliff Winston at the Brookings Institution. Dr Winston is an economist who has studied the sometimes paradoxical and counter-intuitive effects of government interventions. He found, for example, that when automakers gave people the option to buy cars with air bags, the safety devices did not produce the expected results. (See why in the conversation below.)

Winston's work speaks to a term that has come up in the news recently -- moral hazard. The term refers to the propensity of people to take on more risk than they ought to when they feel they have a safety net. Potential examples would range from the bailout of Bear Stearns, the big Wall Street firm that was deemed "too big to fail" and the dilemma faced by Democrats on whether to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida in the presidential primary race, when those states violated DNC rules as to when to hold primaries. Penalizing people when they violate the rules strengthens the rules, but makes people upset, as we saw in the political example. Bending the rules, as we saw with Bear Stearns, keeps people happier, but potentially makes it more likely that other people will also break rules because they suspect they will not be penalized ... I'll start us off with some initial questions for Dr Winston.


Shankar Vedantam: Dr Winston, you told me in our interview about your research into the safety effects of airbags. Could you summarize for our readers what you found -- and why safety devices might not always produce the safety we desire?

Clifford Winston: My collaborators and I assessed the safety effects of airbags in two steps. First, we analyzed the types of drivers who acquired vehicles with airbags back when airbags were an option and not in widespread use. Second, we determined how drivers' behavior and safety changed-if at all-because their car had an airbag. We found that the safest drivers tended to acquire vehicles with airbags and that these "safe drivers" then took advantage of the technological benefits of airbags by driving more aggressively. As a result of having airbags, these individuals' initial level of safety was not decreased by their driving somewhat faster. At the same time, however, overall highway safety was not improved. In a nutshell, certain drivers "offset" the technological safety benefits of airbags by taking greater risks when they drove.


Shankar Vedantam: There is a large amount of research showing that when people feel they have reduced risk, they take more chances. People ride their bikes on more difficult terrain when they are wearing helmets; people seem more careless leaving cigarette lighters around their children when the lighters have a safety lock. Can you give us a short overview of the idea sometimes known as "offsetting behavior" and explain why it comes about?

Clifford Winston: The "offsetting behavior" you're summarizing is based on an idea developed in a number of disciplines, including economics, psychology, and transportation engineering. The idea, in theory, is that people start out with an initial threshold level of risk that they are willing to accept. If their environment becomes safer because of, say, the introduction of safety devices such as helmets, lighter locks, and the like, they may change their behavior by taking additional risks until they reach their initial risk threshold. In practice, in the process of re-assessing their original risk preferences in a new, safer environment, people may exceed their initial risk thresholds. In any case, it is common to observe people engaging in risky behavior that they once avoided because they perceive that the introduction of a safety device has made them safer. Thus, public policies that mandate certain safety devices may have unintended consequences by leading to "offsetting" behavior that reduces the technological benefits of the devices. The example of a person choosing airbags as an option and then driving faster is another example of this kind of behavior.


Shankar Vedantam: Unintended consequences have surprisingly broad effects. Can you give us a sense of the range of these effects?

Clifford Winston: Public policies and innovations frequently result in unintended consequences because people change their behavior in unexpected ways in the new environment. We have already noted some examples in the context of safety. In the health area, the introduction of drugs to reduce cholesterol and reduce blood pressure may induce people who stayed away from fatty foods and alcohol to resume drinking and eating with less dietary caution once they start taking these drugs. Failure to enact certain policies also may have unintended consequences. For example, the failure to price road congestion has contributed greatly to urban sprawl. This is because people with lower values of travel time tend to choose to live further from their workplace to live in larger homes. Road pricing would increase the out-of-pocket costs of commuting and cause some of the people who live far from work to move closer to their workplaces.


Shankar Vedantam: You told me some weeks ago that the proposal by Hillary Clinton and John McCain to suspend the gas tax was an example of how government interventions could have unintended effects. What might they be in that case? I was also thinking about the DNC's dilemma about seating the Michigan and Florida elections in the Democratic primary -- to not seat them would anger many voters, but to seat them could send a message to states in subsequent elections that the rules of the party can be flouted without too much consequence.

Clifford Winston: The proposal to suspend the gas tax was faulty because it didn't think through how motorists would respond to the "lower" gas prices. If the tax is suspended, that would cause an initial reduction of the price of gas at the pump. But motorists would respond to the lower gas prices by driving more! With the supply of gas fixed in the short run, the increase in demand would cause the price of gas to return to its prior level when the tax was in place. Thus, suspending the tax would not reduce fuel consumption, but the government would lose tax revenue and the oil companies would gain revenue. I don't think that was the effect that Senators Clinton and McCain had in mind.

Thus far we have been talking about the effects of changing economic policies that may induce consumers to change their behavior in ways that they perceive benefit them, but that may not be consistent with policymakers' goals. The same ideas also apply to the political world. If the DNC changes its election rules, then it is likely that at least some states will change how they run elections. These changes might benefit the states and their voters but might damage the Democratic Party.


Shankar Vedantam: You are not an ideologue who believes in one size fits all solutions -- you are neither for nor against interventions in general, but support trying to find out which interventions have socially desirable effects. Do you think we have been doing that in our response to the economic slowdown and the subprime mortgage mess?

Clifford Winston: My empirical exploration of the economic effects of microeconomic policies has taught me, among other things, that policymakers "rush to judgment" and do not think through the full consequences of their policies. In addition, policymakers miss the opportunity to learn from a retrospective assessment of the policies they have enacted. My book, GOVERNMENT FAILURE VERSUS MARKET FAILURE, sought to inform policymakers about the effects of a broad range of their policies on consumer welfare. The picture was not pretty!

Policymakers obviously feel great pressure to take quick actions in the face of a slowdown and massive financial losses in the housing sector. But I fear that policymakers will proceed without understanding fully what factors have caused these problems and whether the policies they enact will actually improve the situation or make matters worse. I do not specialize in macroeconomics or housing, but I think policymakers would be well advised to blend an understanding of what caused the problems they wish to solve with some humility about their track record so far in solving such problems, as well as a dash of faith that some pragmatic steps to help people solve their own problems can go a long way.


Vienna, Va.: Great article! It seemed like when you talked about "fair" you really meant "equal." But aren't workers sensitive to equity too? People who put in more effort or who bring more to the organization can get bigger outcomes, and that is still fair. How does perception of equity influence feelings of burnout?

Shankar Vedantam: That's a great question, Vienna, and a potentially thorny one. If some employees are actually better performers than others, does fairness mean everyone is treated the same or that everyone is treated proportional to their performance? The researchers did not analyze this issue, but I suspect that one thing that would quickly happen if they had is that they would have found people have very different notions of performance.

Everyone might agree that some employees are better than others, but many people who do not work in the limelight do essential things, too. The study, remember, focused on people's perceptions of fairness. It did not examine whether those perceptions were true. People who perceived unfairness were more likely to experience burnout.


Alexandria, Va.: Who was the guy that came up with the idea of work for money, anyway? Can't we all find a more enlightened way to gather food and find shelter? 90 percent of people go to work only because they have to - if they could, they would do something completely different. The system of school-jobs-retirement is obsolete and contrived. People should be free in what and how they work, they should be their own bosses and associate only with equal rights. Somebody come up with a better idea after 2,000 years. Please!

Shankar Vedantam: Sounds like this question/comment/plea is at the intersection of both my articles today! Telling people they don't have to work for money -- talk about interventions with a potential for unintended consequences! But I suppose such a move would pretty much eliminate any perceptions of unfairness on the part of employees. (It might also, unfortunately, eliminate the economy.)


Colonial Beach, Va.: Interesting data but look how almost half of the cultures show a sort of "U" shaped function, i.e., decreasing rejection of the deal up a point from "nothing" but after about half, the percent rejecting the deal increases up to, in some cases, almost 100 percent. Clearly, human behavior has many puzzling aspects.


Shankar Vedantam: Indeed, the U shaped results you see in the distribution of unfairness is very striking. People from some cultures reject deals that are unfair to them, and essentially agree to being given anything from 40 percent on up. But there are people (from other cultures) who seem to agree to the deal only when neither they NOR THEIR "OPPONENT" is treated unfairly. It is almost as though they are willing to punish themselves for any sign that they are being unfairly benefited. The researchers are convinced these results are not because people didn't understand how the game is to be played. Rather, I understand that these groups are known for their especially strong beliefs about equity.


Washington, D.C.: Can you please expand on your evolutionary explanation? I thought natural selection worked on the level of the individual, not the species.

Shankar Vedantam: Well, there is a book to be written about this question. Natural selection works on the genetic information being transmitted from one generation to the next -- it is INFORMATION that is being conserved or discarded. This is the idea in Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene -- it is the gene, the unit of genetic information, that is primarily affected by the forces of evolution and natural selection. I would think that, on a large scale level, species effects would be seen first, followed by effects among individuals.


Newington, Va.: For Winston, if political measures to respond to a crisis like gas or housing usually do not work out because of unintended consequences, why don't politicians catch on to this? Why do they keep trying quick fixes?

Clifford Winston: First, politicians are under pressure to "do something" and the very act of responding can, in the short run, take the heat off. More importantly, it takes time to assess whether a response has been effective or compromised by unintended consequences. By the time the evidence is developed, politicians have moved to other more pressing issues and are not likely to be very interested in looking back on past issues. Finally, new elected officials often take the view that they can solve the problems that their predecessors were unable to solve.


Arlington, Va.: At my agency, the work force survey results show that people resent the poor performers among us. It seems this is another example of unfairness that causes burnout. Why are managers more concerned about being "nice" than doing their job and getting rid of the non-performers? This seems to be a pervasive problem.

Shankar Vedantam: This is a variation of an earlier question; again, an interesting point. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that a perception of unfairness is not merely about people who work as hard as you (and are as good as you) being compensated more highly or treated better, BUT people who are not as good as you being treated the same as you.

As I said, the study only looked at perceptions of unfairness, and I think it is plausible to say that people might sense unfairness BOTH when they are treated worse than their peers and when their inferiors (in terms of productivity) are treated like their peers!


Reston, Va.: I personally feel that I'm treated unfairly because I do not have children, and therefore can be expected to work to the rule, while coworkers with children get away with murder - coming in late, leaving early, contact phone calls with children. My favorite is the comment that because I don't have children, I must have "plenty" of money.

But pointing the unfairness out is being negative or unsupportive of workers with children, so you can't win!

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the comment, Reston.

I guess there really are a lot more perceptions of unfairness than I had assumed at the start ...


Arlington, Va.: There's a dirty little secret in many office environments known as having too little to do. Nobody wants to admit it, but a lot of people spend much of the day supremely bored. I suspect this has a lot to do with burnout.

Shankar Vedantam: All I can say to that is, if there was any way these people could bottle some of their time and pass it along to me, I would HUGELY appreciate it. I can't remember the last time I got to the end of a day where everything I wanted to do actually got done. Good days usually involve just having fewer things left to do on the to-do list!

But seriously, the researchers did look at people who had one of two major signs of burnout and then followed these people to see which developed both signs of burnout and which of them eliminated the risk factor over time. One of those risk factors was exhaustion -- and I wonder whether some people who you say have nothing to do are actually exhausted and UNABLE to do anything?


Alexandria, Va., also: I think previous Alexandria's point was that if society provided food and shelter (and presumably, health care) people would do work that was more "up their alley". The economy would be different than the one we are used to now, but it would not be destroyed. Some people would be happy with food, shelter, healthcare; some would want to work for small additions (furniture?), some for large ones.

Shankar Vedantam: I think your argument is intuitively appealing, but not sure it is true. I think a lot of people could cut back on their work and live simpler lives, but very few people make this choice. I remember hearing about a survey where people were asked whether they were likely, unlikely, very likely or very unlikely to accept new work responsibilities that would detract from their family time and downtime. The results showed that nearly everyone was willing to at least think about working harder if it meant more money/prestige etc, and that there was virtually no one in the "very unlikely" group at all. So I would argue it is a minority of people who would actually choose to scale back their material expectations and do work they enjoy doing.


Shankar Vedantam: That's all we have time for today. Thanks for the questions and comments.

Thanks especially to Clifford Winston at the Brookings Institution. I ought to have mentioned this at the start but better late than never: Winston is the author of the 2006 book Government Failure versus Market Failure.


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