Purpose can be a Dangerous Thing

Who has time to rethink work? Probably not this guy… (Credit to David Jien and the New York Times)

In late August, Barry Schwartz a professor of psychology wrote an article for the New York times called Rethinking Work.

Anything that’s going to get us challenge our contemporary notions of work is going to interest me. But sadly Schwartz’s article isn’t so much challenging things like the Puritan work ethic, the obsession with fast-living, or even the amount of hours we all work. It isn’t about challenging the modern conception of a firm (i.e. corporations), the worker-boss dynamic or the way the state involves itself in work.

Instead, Schwartz decides to challenge the notion that work is done, “only because we have to” and not for any sort of purpose or bigger meaning. Schwartz thinks that notion is “entirely backward” and imbues us with a pre-determined cynicism about work and its potential effects on us.

The problem with his analysis is that he’s acting as if psychological and philosophical beliefs about work are the only things that matter. He doesn’t mention the amount of hours Americans tend to work in a week, or the fact that some workers may feel disempowered in the current workplace. These issues don’t stem from workers picking up an Adam Smith collection but rather being systematically and institutionally burn out by the corporate structure.

Ideas that workers are just putting themselves in self-fulfilling prophecies sounds nice, though. It sounds like there’s a really simple way to fix work. All we need to do is think about it differently! We shouldn’t think about it as something we’re obliged to do (even though that’s mostly true, economically speaking) but rather something that includes purpose.

But purpose is dangerous.

Schwarz writes:

[A] few years ago the Wharton management professor Adam Grantstudied a group of college students who worked as phone solicitors, calling alumni to ask for contributions to their university. As an experiment, Professor Grant arranged for a recent graduate who had attended the university on a scholarship funded by such solicitation efforts to meet the students. The graduate gave a short talk about how the scholarship had affected his life and how grateful he was for their solicitation efforts.

Professor Grant found that the money that the students raised increased 171 percent afterward. Again, there was no added compensation for the harder work — just a deeper sense of purpose.

Just to note something, the study is behind a paywall.

So I can’t actually see how accurate the study was/is which doesn’t exactly help Schwarz’s argument here.

But let’s just presume he’s right about all of this.

The fact that people increased their work over 100% for no added compensation is apparently non-problematic to Schwartz. This, even though many people would see a workplace situation where this happened as grossly negligent on the part of the employer. The employer would (rightfully) be reviled for giving his workers a “sense of purpose” in order to give the employer more work for no extra costs.

In the case of college however, students are just treated as things that can be given countless carrots for their hard work. None of which includes any sort of actual monetary compensation but some sort of potential future reward. A reward that was in no way guaranteed based on their extra labor. But the fact that all of these students reacted the way they did certainly does make us keep in mind how powerful of a factor purpose can be.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem. Purpose is a great motivating tool but it can also take you beyond your limits before you even realize they’re there. Sometimes when I get really stuck on a given task or want to do something in particular, I end up focusing on it to the detriment of other things. At times I even do it to the detriment of myself.

And speaking personally, that’s not healthy. It might be great that I “have a purpose” and I want purposeful actions in my life as opposed to banal ones. But banality isn’t the only thing that can suck up your life and make you dull and uninteresting. Banality isn’t the only thing that can drain your energies and make you feel less than you did when you started. Purpose can do all of these things as well, at least in improper amounts.

Here’s another example I found in Schwarz’s article:

About 15 years ago, the Yale organizational behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues studied custodians in a major academic hospital.

Though the custodians’ official job duties never even mentioned other human beings, many of them viewed their work as including doing whatever they could to comfort patients and their families and to assist the professional staff members with patient care. They would joke with patients, calm them down so that nurses could insert IVs, even dance for them. They would help family members of patients find their way around the hospital.

The custodians received no financial compensation for this “extra” work. But this aspect of the job, they said, was what got them out of bed every morning. “I enjoy entertaining the patients,” said one. “That’s what I enjoy the most.”

This is obviously a form of emotional labor. A type of labor where people use their expressions and gestures to improve the workplace instead of physical labor. The most obvious example would be the greeter at Wal-Mart whose sole purpose in the store is to make customers feel welcomed.

Generally, it strikes me as inefficient within a firm to not reward employees in some way who are going through this extra trouble. This, by the way, was another study that is behind a paywall. So I can’t make heads or tails of whether this study was done right or not. But, again, presuming it was, it’s great that the janitors enjoy helping others. But shouldn’t those who commit the most to a given customer get some sort of financial reward? A raise? Some sort of gift card? Anything?

Instead, perhaps we should all look up at the sky in awe as we see the purpose in their eyes. All the while these workers are enjoying the extra things they do more than the work itself. And the work they do much more often is paid while the work they do less often but enjoy more isn’t.

I am failing to see why these are ideal situations for workers.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having purpose in your work. But for me, there’s a difference between individually imbuing passion and heart into your work and having it directed from the top-down. When I overwork myself or go to deep into something I can usually (after a time…) pull myself away again. But when someone else tells me to invest myself more than I do then I’m not as free to disengage as compared to if it was me who wanted to invest more.

And when individuals (like the janitors) decide to put more effort into it that deserves a bit more than a pat on the back.

 One study I could look at was a study that reviewed the idea that…

people are less likely to help load a couch into a van when you offer a small payment than when you don’t, because the offer of pay makes their task a commercial transaction rather than a favor to another human being. And people are less likely to agree to have a nuclear waste site in their community when you offer to pay them, because the offer of compensation undermines their sense of civic duty.

The first link works and the second doesn’t. Go team?

Anyways, the first study redirects you to this paper called, Effort for Payment: A Tale of Two Markets.

The point of the study is to highlight the fact that there are social markets and monetary ones. Monetary ones revolve around transactions involving money while social markets don’t. The study is out to show that folks will sometimes put more effort into non-compensated work than poorly or even mid-level compensated work.

First, I would like to point out a few problems with the study:

  1. Sample size: The amount of people surveyed less than 1000 people. Which means the results of this test aren’t statistically significant enough to warrant a general application to a population. Which is exactly what Schwartz tried to do in his article.
  2. Limited application: Even if it were more statistically significant, the surveys particularly happened amongst a certain age group (college students) among a certain institution (college). This is both a very specific subculture of the population and a fairly unique one in many ways. Unless it was reproduced in a broader area it says very limited things.
  3. Poor framing: The framing of the study seems faulty to me. It isn’t clear to me how monetary exchanges are distinct from social exchanges. What makes money anti-social, exactly? The researchers make no real argument for this distinction. Granted, the distinction may amount to a sort of semantic dispute and end up not really hurting their study’s results. But I thnik it reflects poorly on their study if they cannot frame the issue as effectively as possible.

Those issues aside, the study was mildly interesting to read about. It’s also very short and comes in at least than 10 pages, which is nice as well. I also enjoyed Fiske’s relational theory that they discuss.

Fiske’s seems interesting and perhaps even worth implementing:

Fiske’s model posits four basic types of social relationships: communal sharing (CS), authority ranking (AR), equality matching (EM), and market pricing (MP). (p. 1)

Obviously this is a simplification and I think it’s safe to say that you could mix and match things (for example, a mother might assign a chore authoritatively (AR) but also offer a monetary reward if followed (MP)). Regardless, it struck me as more interesting than the larger study.

The larger study was just surveying students about whether they’d put in more effort in the money relationship or the social one. They had a few different hypotheses. One of which was that if a social exchange had money involved then the other person would be more likely to see it more as a money exchnge.

Recently, when I tried to have someone buy an anarchist pamphlet for a curious onlooker at our table he all of the sudden declined interest. The other people at the table explained to me that he most likely saw it as a way to make him feel obligated to come to our meeting later.

But all I saw it was a social transaction. One that was doing him a favor for being curious in our material.

Neurotypicals are weird.

So I think there’s some truth to this hypothesis and if someone offered me non-monetary and monetary rewards I’d also probably have the monetary ones most in mind. Though, that makes sense given that money would be the most flexible thing that I could use outside of that relationship. I can’t exactly trade my friend’s good graces or high-fives for a hot dog at my local corner store as easily as a five dollar bill, if at all.

Regardless, the researchers admit that hypotheticals don’t test real world situations but are useful for gauging people’s real world intuitions. So that’s another point against Schwartz using this study as a generally applicable point. In addition, to return to the study again, it isn’t true that just because no monetary benefit is gained that social benefits are purely altruistic. Or that they’re altruistic at all for that matter.

Instead, sometimes people do “social relations” because of the social benefit they’ll gain from it. Maybe it will make someone else like them more, or want to have them do a favor later, or might be more favorable to hanging out with you, etc. Helping someone else is, I’d argue, almost always in some way also helping yourself as well.

Overall, however, I’m not sure how much I think the study really matters. All it really says is that people’s effort differs when it goes from low-monetary compensation to middle. And that the changes aren’t relevant when you’re merely doing it for gifts or some more “social” way of exchanging things.

I don’t think we need to argue that money should control all transactions. I think there’s plenty of room or social transactions as well that rely on favors, good-will and gifts too. But there seems to be some sort of artificial conflict that many people (including Schwartz) are making to divide these two types of transactions.

This seems to me to be both unhelpful and misguided. There’s nothing inherently anti-social about giving someone money, so long as the cash nexus isn’t all the market economy actually is. If it is, then I’d be much more persuaded by the argument that money is some sort of anti-social tool. Because if all you can use is one tool then everything else is constrained in some artificial manner and is out of your control. And that’s a fairly anti-social environment to me.

If Schwarz wants to help us rethink work then perhaps when he claims we should empower workers, we should think much more radically about what that’d mean. Would it mean simply increasing money? Increasing gifts? No, to me, it would involve throwing the bosses off our backs and organizing our own firms. Starting cooperatives and collectives and being entrepreneurs instead of being subjected to hierarchical organizations.

Trying to do something like that would change the way we look at work.

And it would change it in notable, positive and radical ways

Now that’s using your head.


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