High productivity and high earning rates brought about by modern technologies make it possible for people to work less and enjoy more, yet many continue to work assiduously to earn more. Do people overearn—forgo leisure to work and earn beyond their needs? This question is understudied, partly because in real life, determining the right amount of earning and defining overearning are difficult. In this research, we introduced a minimalistic paradigm that allows researchers to study overearning in a controlled laboratory setting. Using this paradigm, we found that individuals do overearn, even at the cost of happiness, and that overearning is a result of mindless accumulation—a tendency to work and earn until feeling tired rather than until having enough. Supporting the mindless-accumulation notion, our results show, first, that individuals work about the same amount regardless of earning rates and hence are more likely to overearn when earning rates are high than when they are low, and second, that prompting individuals to consider the consequences of their earnings or denying them excessive earnings can disrupt mindless accumulation and enhance happiness.
And, their description of the paradigm used:
Participants are tested individually while seated at a table in front of a computer and wearing a headset. The procedure consists of two consecutive phases, each lasting 5 min. In Phase I, the participant can relax and listen to music (mimicking leisure) or press a key to disrupt the music and listen to a noise (mimicking work). For every certain number of times the participant listens to the noise (e.g., 20 times), he or she earns 1 chocolate; the computer keeps track and shows how many chocolates the participant has earned. The participant can only earn (not eat) the chocolates in Phase I and can only eat (and not earn more of) the chocolates in Phase II. The participant does not need to eat all of the earned chocolates in Phase II, but if any remain, they must be left on the table at the end of the study. Participants learn about these provisions in advance and are informed that they can decide how many chocolates to earn in Phase I and how many to eat in Phase II, and that their only objective is to make themselves as happy as possible during the experiment.
Our paradigm simulates a microcosmic life with a fixed life span; in the first half, one chooses between leisure and labor (earning), and in the second half, one consumes one’s earnings and may not bequeath them to others. In designing the paradigm, our priority was minimalism and controllability rather than realism and external validity. The paradigm was inspired by social scientists’ approaches to investigating complex real-world issues, such as unselfish motives, using minimalistic simulations, such as the ultimatum game. These simulations involve contrived features—for example, players cannot learn each other’s identities and need not worry about reputations—but such features are important because they allow researchers to control for normative reasons for unselfish behaviors and test for pure, unselfish motives. Likewise, our paradigm also involves contrived features—for example, rewards are chocolates rather than money, and participants cannot take their rewards from the lab—but these features are crucial for us to control for normative reasons for overearning effects and test for pure overearning tendencies.