Study: A Little Forethought Can Cure the Urge Toward "Mindless Accumulation"

At the beginning of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes made a bold but logical prediction (pdf): In the long run, humanity was solving its economic problems, so that by 2030, in "progressive countries," a 15-hour work week would be the norm. Now, 17 years short of 2030, the world seems to have fulfilled Keynes' prophecy that we would be eight times better off economically than they were when he was writing. So where is the leisure he foresaw? Why are we all still working like fiends? In this paper, Christopher K. Hsee and his co-authors suggest that at least part of the explanation is psychological. Where rational economic creatures would work until they had earned enough to satisfy their needs, Homo sapiens has a propensity for "mindless accumulation": Working until you can't work any more, thereby earning way more than you need. In a series of lab experiments, the researchers write, they've isolated this tendency to "overearning" and found hints of a possible cure.

In their first experiment, 29 women and 26 men were each put in front of a computer monitor with a headset, on which pleasant piano music would play. For the next five minutes, the volunteer had a choice: Keep listening (ie, enjoy a bit of leisure time), or push a key and hear an irritating sound for a fifth of a second. For this annoying task (ie, work), they would be rewarded with a miniature Dove bar. Half the group was told it would take 20 noises to earn one chocolate; the other half got a much lower wage: 120 noises for one chocolate. In the second half of the experiment, the volunteers got their "pay" and could eat as much of it as they pleased. But, as in life, they couldn't take any chocolate with them when they left. So the volunteers had a clear incentive to "work" for as much chocolate as they could enjoy in the lab, and no reason to work for more.

Nonetheless, those in the high-wage group (one chocolate for 20 noises) "overearned" by a wide margin: As a whole, they worked enough to get nearly 11 Dove candies per person, even though they actually ate less than five per person. (There was an outlier—one hungry loon who earned 50 chocolates and ate 28 of them—which created some odd statistics but didn't alter the overall results.) Meanwhile, the low-wage people (one chocolate for 120 noises) earned only an average of two and a half Dove bars each. This was, nonetheless, more than they wanted to eat; they too left some chocolate on the table.

So, the experimenters write, they've shown that their volunteers will work earn more than they need, piling up chocolate that they'll never eat. And this tendency was much more pronounced in the "high-wage" group.

You might think people simply overestimated how much chocolate they would want to eat, and worked accordingly. But that doesn't explain the results. Firstly, Hsee et al. tolf a second group of volunteers about the procedure and asked them to estimate how much chocolate they would work for if they were to do the experiment themselves. They pegged it at around 4 chocolates. That's pretty close to what the high-earner group actually ate, suggesting that people didn't misjudge how much they would need. Secondly, if everyone in the experiment had a tendency to overestimate their desire for Dove chocolate bars, then the low-wage people should have done so as well, and worked harder.

Another possible explanation (very common on the streets of New York, where I live) is that the workers just loved their job, and couldn't get enough of it. The experimenters addressed this by asking the group to rate the experience of listening to the nasty noise versus listening the music. Idle music-listening was rated as far more pleasurable. So for this particular instance of "work," sheer joy was not the explanation.

In a second experiment, the researchers wanted to see what would happen if, while earning, people were made to think consciously about how they were piling up rewards they would never use. "One way to achieve this was to force participants to eat all of their earned chocolates," the authors write, maybe a little wistfully, "but doing so was not ethically justifiable." So the reward this time around was: jokes. During their first three minutes in front of the computer, volunteers could earn the right to read one joke by subjecting themselves to five instances of noise. In the second 3 minutes, the jokes they had earned would be displayed on the computer screen. Here, though, they were warned about the Catch-22: With the strict time limit, a person who had earned too many jokes would watch them fly by too fast to catch the punch lines.

Again, the participants (19 women and 21 men) overearned. However, half the group, which had been asked beforehand to think about how many jokes they wanted to see, overdid it a great deal less. Most of these people, in fact, reached their target number of jokes and then stopped "working." Participants were again asked how happy they were doing their tasks, and those who had earned the most jokes were least happy (presumably from the jestus interruptus they kept suffering). In fact, the paper says, "the more jokes participants earned, the less happy they were."

What this suggests, write Hsee et al., is that overearning is a strong drive. People did it even when they knew that overshooting the mark would reduce their enjoyment of their reward. On the other hand, the drive to overearn does seem susceptible to a framing effect. Some volunteers, remember, were reminded before the task about what they considered adequate for their needs. Those people engaged in less "mindless accumulation" than those who just sat down and started to work.

With that in mind, Hsee et al. set up a third experiment., with an explicit "earning cap." As they worked for their wage (this time, one Hershey's kiss for every 10 instances of noise) the volunteers were notified when they had earned 12 chocolates. Half saw a message that told them they could not earn any more reward, though they were welcome to keep irritating themselves with noises if they liked. The others were told they could keep adding to their chocolate pile by continuing the chore.

Those people kept working away, earning an average of 14 and a half Hershey's kisses per person—even though they ended up eating only six and a half each. Those who saw the "earning cap" message, though, stopped working sooner, earned less, and thus left much less uneaten chocolate on the table. Moreover, those people pronounced themselves happier.

Hsee et al. acknowledge, of course, that they've created a highly simplified model of the working life—one where love of work, desire to pass on an inheritance, competitiveness with others, social norms and a host of other elements are not present. There is also a Henrich caveat here: The experimental groups were not very big, and they were made up entirely of people from a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich Democratic) society. "Our priority," they write, "was minimalism and controllability rather than realism and external validity." Fair enough. You have to start somewhere.

Many have considered the fact that higher incomes don't correlate with greater happiness and proposed that the tendency to earn more than we need might stem from status-seeking and envy of others. Hsee et al.'s work suggests there are other drivers worth considering. The authors think that "mindless accumulation" is simply a mismatch between human nature and our current abundance. Until recently, they note, scarcity made overearning impossible, and it made sense to work for a reward as long as one was on offer.

In any event, now that more and more of us are surrounded by material comfort, it does seem a good idea to think about how we can wean ourselves off the ancient habit of working till we drop. It will likely not be easy, as Keynes foresaw: "Yet there is no country and no people," he wrote, "who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy."

 Hsee, C., Zhang, J., Cai, C., & Zhang, S. (2013). Overearning Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464785

Illustration: The gold-obsessed dragon Fafner stands guard over his treasure. Arthur Rackham, via Wikimedia.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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