the essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," philosopher Albert Camus — who
would have turned 100 on Thursday — explored the nature of boring work. There's
new psychological research into why people end up in boring jobs.
Now, one of Camus' most famous
essays, "The Myth of Sisyphus," has caught the attention of NPR's
Shankar Vedantam, who joins us each week to discuss interesting social science
research. He's looking at what Camus said about the daily grind today. Hey,
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi,
GREENE: So remind us first, if
you can, "The Myth of Sisyphus." It really was about a daily grind.
VEDANTAM: Right. It's a famous
essay by Camus; and it looks at a Greek myth about a man who's condemned by the
gods to roll a boulder up a hill, watch it roll down, and then repeat the cycle
for all eternity. And at one point, Camus connects this myth to the fate of the
modern worker. He says the work man of today works every day in his life at the
same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd.
GREENE: And you've seen some new
research that seems to drive that home.
VEDANTAM: I think so, David.
There's new psychological research out of Duke University. I spoke with Peter
Ubel, along with a colleague, David Comerford. He's looked at people who do
boring work. He asked me to imagine applying for a job at a museum where the
job was to stand around for several hours a day telling people not to touch the
GREENE: We've all seen those
VEDANTAM: Exactly. Ubel says
there's a difference between how you think about the job when you're applying
for it, and your actual experience of such a job.
PETER UBEL: At the time, it might
sound like a wonderful job - I just stand there and do nothing, and they pay me
for it. Wow; that sounds great. But now, imagine standing there all day long
while people are walking about the museum enjoying themselves. You're not even
allowed to really talk to them much. I cannot imagine a more boring job.
VEDANTAM: So I think the thing
that he's talking about here, David, is the idea that when you're anticipating
the kind of work that you want to do, how you think about it might be very
different than the actual experience of the job, when you're doing it.
GREENE: What explains that gap?
Is it just the matter of a bad job description, or is there something else
UBEL: No. Ubel and Comerford
think there's something else; that when we think about jobs that we have to do,
we often are confronted by a host of different things to think about. And it's
difficult to think about all those things at once and so we simplify it, and we
think about just one or two of the characteristics of the job. So if I was to
tell you, David, that there was a job opportunity and you had to choose between
living in sunny Southern California and in freezing Michigan, which would you
GREENE: Probably Michigan. I'm a
Pittsburgher. I like the middle of the country. I like snow. So I think I'd go
VEDANTAM: (Laughter) That was
totally the wrong answer, David.
VEDANTAM: But anyway, the point
is, the question like that makes you think about the weather because, you know,
I said sunny Southern California and freezing Michigan. But there are lots of
other factors at play, right? There's traffic jams. There's the cost of living.
And most people don't think about those things because you simplify the decision
into one or two sort of factors.
And one of the factors Ubel and
Comerford think we use is this phenomenon called effort aversion, which is that
when we think about work and potential jobs, we pick the job that involves the
GREENE: This is the connection
with the guy in the museum. I mean, I suppose that he decides to take this job
because he thinks, you know, I get to sit in this lovely museum all day long,
get paid and not have to work all that hard.
VEDANTAM: Yeah. Now, it's fair to
say, David, of course, that lots of people don't have choices in the work they
do. In this economy, a lot of people are just lucky to have a job.
VEDANTAM: But I think what Ubel
and Comerford are basically saying is even when we have a choice, we often end
up picking the more boring job. They ran this experiment with business school
students. They sat the students in a classroom and said: For the next five
minutes, you will do absolutely nothing - no iPhones, no computers - and we'll
pay you $2.50.
But they gave them an option.
They said: Instead of sitting and doing nothing, you could solve these really
difficult word puzzles. How much would you want us to pay you?
UBEL: We found that a large
majority of the students said we'd have to pay them more than $2.50 to solve
the word puzzles, and yet when we actually finished the five minutes and asked
them how much they enjoyed those five minutes, the people solving the word
puzzles enjoyed the five minutes significantly more. And yet very few of them
said yeah, pay me $2 and I'd be happy to do word puzzles 'cause at least I'll
be having fun.
GREENE: So they thought they
should be paid more to do these puzzles, thinking it was harder work. But
actually, doing something during that time actually turned out to be more
interesting for them.
UBEL: Exactly. And I think
there's a connection here with the world of Camus, David. I think both Ubel and
Camus are basically saying when you make choices, make them consciously. Make
them deliberately. Don't let unconscious biases guide you. Camus would even go
a step further and say, even when choices are forced on you, live your life
with your eyes open because meaning doesn't lie in the work, it lies in what
you bring to the work.
GREENE: Shankar, thanks, as
VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.
GREENE: NPR's Shankar Vedantam -
he's on Twitter @HiddenBrain. And you're listening to NPR News.
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