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.

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