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Bored at work? It's a tradeoff

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Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

Is it difficult to push yourself each day to go to a boring job?

If you are looking for a way out, consider how you got there. It may be that you chose that boring job because you didn't think alternative jobs would pay you enough for the effort you would put into your work. And if you choose a new job based on the same criteria, you may end up just as unsatisfied.

Research by a team of professors shows that people pick boring jobs over stimulating ones intentionally if they focus on pay and perceive that the more appealing job won't compensate them enough for the effort it demands.

They “price themselves out of the job market” for a more enjoyable job, said Peter Ubel, marketing professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Ubel, along with assistant professor David Comerford, studied the decisions people make when accepting jobs. They studied several situations. In one, people chose between two short-term jobs at a cultural festival. One job, for an usher, was multi-faceted, and participants in the study described it as more interesting. It required many activities, including publicizing the event and escorting performers to their venues.

The other job was recognized as boring. It involved being a monitor. The job description was simple: “The only task you are expected to perform is to alert a security guard in the highly unlikely event that one is required.” And while being on alert for any problems, the monitor specifically was told he or she could not read, listen to music or use a mobile phone.

The pay was the same for both jobs. And although more than 80 percent of people said they preferred the more interesting job, 39 percent passed up it upwhen they didn't think the pay offered was substantial enough to compensate for all aspects of their effort. They settled on the boring job because they thought the pay fit.

In another study, the researchers focused on 74 graduate students who were to work on a short film. The students were given a choice between working on a puzzle for about five minutes, or being a mere onlooker doing nothing. About 66 percent thought working on the puzzle would be more interesting. But about 18 percent of them balked at doing the more demanding job of working the puzzle rather than being an onlooker for the same pay.

“It hurts to feel that the offered wage is lower than normal,” the professors said in “Effort Aversion: Job Choice and Compensation Decisions Overweight Effort,” which appears in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

In other words, people weren't necessarily turning away from a job because they needed more pay. They were turning away from it because they didn't think the pay was fair for the effort they were going to put into the job. The professors called it “effort aversion.”

“Ask someone which of two jobs they like better, and they will often pick the more interesting job, even if it requires more mental or physical effort,” Comerford said. “But ask them how much the two jobs should pay, and now that their mind is focused on wages, they often conclude that all that extra effort ought to be rewarded, otherwise they will take the boring job.”

Gail MarksJarvis is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send her email at gmarksjarvis@tribune.com.

 

 
 


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