Imagine that you’d agreed to take part in an experiment on factors affecting task performance. For the first half-hour, you put twelve spools on a tray with one hand, slide them off and then start again.
Afterwards, the experimenter gives you a board containing forty-eight wooden pegs. You turn each of the pegs ninety degrees clockwise. Then you turn each of the pegs another ninety degrees clockwise and so on for another half-hour. The experimenter sits nearby with a stopwatch, making notes on a piece of paper. You sigh, shuffle on your chair and get on with turning the knobs.
After this is all over, the experimenter debriefs you. You fill in a questionnaire, which asks how interesting and enjoyable you found the tasks. Unsurprisingly, most participants rated them as being rather dull. So far, the results are as boring as the tasks. But a second batch of volunteers had a slightly different experience.
They did the same tedious spool sorting and knob turning. But at the end, the experimenter asked them to do him a favour. He explained that the point of the task was to measure the impact of people’s expectations on their performance. Sometimes, he explained, they tell participants that the tasks are a lot of fun before they start. But the person who usually does this hasn’t turned up. The experimenter looks embarrassed. Would you mind doing this? He’ll pay a dollar.
Most of the students agreed to help out. They tell a girl whom they thought was about to do the task that it was really interesting. They are thanked and given the questionnaire. How enjoyable did they themselves find the task?
Their conscious brains might remember the sighing and shuffling, but they also just heard themselves tell somebody else that the task was fun. The measly dollar didn’t justify the subterfuge. On average, participants in this second group rank the task as being interesting, two points higher (on an eleven-point scale) than volunteers in the first group. Their conscious brains mistook their own lies for real enthusiasm.
We infer why we do what we do in the way that other people infer why we do what we do. In the spool-turning experiment, participants inferred that they enjoyed the experiment because they heard themselves describing how much fun it was to somebody else.
But we all know that people do things not just because they enjoy them, but also because they get paid. If we see a sports star advertising a razor blade, we don’t necessarily imagine he’s starring in the poster because he loves the blade so much that he feels the need to tell everyone about it.
So if you pay somebody to do the experiment, they might infer that they told somebody else the task was interesting because of the money rather than because they believed it. This is exactly what the experimenters found.
When they paid participants $20 instead of $1 (not a small sum in the Fifties), they said the experiment was just as boring as it truly was. This is just what other people expect: when they heard someone describe how much fun the experiment was and were told he was paid $20 to do so, they thought he was lying; when they heard he’d just been paid a dollar they thought he was probably telling the truth.
So take a moment to feel sorry for the highly paid out there.
When somebody tells you that they are a medic or a publisher, you probably infer that person to be caring or to have a love of books. At the end of the month, provided they aren’t paid too much, they probably conclude the same thing. But if you hear someone is a hedge fund manager or an investment banker, you’re more likely to deduce that they love money rather than their job. Unfortunately for the financier, however much fun his job might be (advising large companies on their biggest decisions can’t be that boring), they’ll infer the same thing.
Dr Chris Paley is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.
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