A Social Scientist Looks at Christmas

From the 12 Days of Christmas to a multi-billion dollar windfall.

For time in eternity, Christmas has been sold to us as the most magical time of the year. For some, it’s the memory of our father’s painstaking efforts to create something resembling the paws of a reindeer on the deck, or the waft of mother’s gingerbread baking in the oven; or perhaps the tradition of reading The Night Before Christmas before bedtime on Christmas Eve.

But once we grow up, the feelings usually associated with Christmas become very different. Simple childhood delight gives way to feelings of stress and anxiety, and the sense of being overwhelmed by the constant and relentless pressure to buy, buy, buy!

So the question has to be asked, at what point did a really nice story become consumerism out of control? And, why is it that we’ve become incapable of getting off the bandwagon?

Enter consumer behaviour 101 …

Globally, the advertising industry has created a multi billion dollar revenue stream around ‘selling Christmas,’ through creating needs we didn’t know we had and then offering solutions we didn’t know we needed. The release of annual Christmas-themed television ads with production budgets larger than the royal wedding, the multiplicity of ‘Get Christmas sorted’ brochures, special edition magazines etc. are all designed to sell to us the concept of what a perfect Christmas looks like and create an implicit guilt if we don’t buy-in. The quintessential notion of Santa dusted in snow with a sac full of candy, a rag doll or a wooden train, topped off with an orange and bottle of coke, has given way to jet skis, the latest iphone, a SMART TV or five nights in a luxury resort.

There are three drivers central to the bid to sell Christmas – Pressure, Emotional Manipulation, and Tradition. Without these key drivers Christmas may just pass as it was once intended to – an intimate family affair with very little impact from the outside world – however, when combined they create a whirlwind of fantasy and coercion that ensure people engage with the ideal Christmas (according to the gospel of optimal consumerism).

Starting immediately after Black Friday, the Christmas decorations go up, Christmas advertisements are released to thousands of likes on social media, and the countdown to Christmas has begun. From then on we are bombarded with messaging about the perfect gift for Christmas, the perfect make-up look for an effortless Christmas appearance, even the perfect outfit for your dog to wear in their family Christmas photo. All of these things are designed to create a sense of urgency and to pressure you into purchases in order to achieve the unattainable. And then suddenly it goes from ‘what I need to do’ to ‘how do I compare’ – and voilà – Christmas has now become a competition!

Every piece of advertising produced around Christmas time, down to the Christmas decorations in shop windows and the incessant noise of Snoopy’s Christmas on repeat play, is designed to manipulate our emotions – to make us feel festive, and then lure us into heightened buying behaviours. In recent years annual Christmas advertisements from large conglomerations such as Coke or John Lewis have been hugely popular. Featuring cute pets, a beautiful love story, or a wistful old man, they are crafted to elicit an emotional response from us which then positions these companies and their products front and centre in our view of what Christmas must be.

Perhaps the company who best exemplifies their influence over Christmas is Coca Cola. Since the 1920’s when an a department store advertisement depicted a red Santa drinking a bottle of coke, Coca Cola has been heavily intertwined with Western Christmases. From sponsoring Christmas in the Park, to creating the very image of what Santa looks like today they have huge influence over our Christmas traditions – if you’ve ever wondered how the bottle of coke ever became a thing at the bottom of every child’s Christmas stocking, well now you know! Coke is perhaps the smartest example of advertising over the 20th and 21st centuries.

The question still remains though, why do we repeatedly engage with all this hype around Christmas despite being able to rationalise what’s actually going on?

It is basic psychology that what we grow up with and what we are presented with almost inexhaustibly will shape our view of the world. What Christmas means to us, the big family affair, the beautifully decorated tree and wrapped presents, and the jolly red Santa that visits our children each year are the ‘joys’ we have been skillfully and deliberately trained to want and will go to great ends to achieve.

No matter how stressful or expensive Christmas is, we’ll still sit around amongst unwrapped presents on the 25th of December and celebrate, while the advertising agencies count their Christmas bonuses and companies add up their profit, congratulating themselves on a job well done.

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A Social Scientist Looks at Christmas

The Unbearable Madness of Crowds

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If you were to compile a list of the smartest people of all time, Sir Isaac Newton would undoubtedly be prominent amongst the candidates. Carl Sagan described him as “perhaps the greatest scientific genius who ever lived” and even Einstein (who might make the list on his own merits) called him “a shining spirit” responsible for “a turning point in the world’s intellectual development”. Those are some accolades, but they seem fitting given Newton changed the way we think about the universe, helped explain gravity, and has a good claim to inventing calculus. But Newton is interesting to those of us in market research for a very different reason. Despite his brilliance with numbers and cause-and-effect relationships, Newton lost a fortune investing in the South Seas Company (subsequently, but too late for Newton, known as ‘The South Seas Bubble’). The losses were catastrophic for Newton, wiping out his life savings. For the rest of his life, Newton forbade anyone to speak the words ‘South Sea’ around him. Reflecting on his loss, Newton famously said “I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people”.

“I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people” – Isaac Newton

As far as mottos for the market research industry go, that seems to me as good as any. We’ve come a long way since 1720 but – in many ways – we are little better at understanding ‘the madness of crowds’ than Newton was. What we are much better at is understanding the limitations of our models and our measurement tools. Good practice today is about combining viewpoints and methods – and boiling it all up with a pinch of methodological modesty. And we do this because, as Bob Hoffman (of Ad Contrarian fame) once noted, there are three main problems with consumer research: people don’t know what they really think, they don’t say what they really mean, and they don’t really mean what they do say. That might sound like an indictment of our industry, but I think it presents a wonderful opportunity to grapple with the complexity of human behaviour.

Indeed, in the 30 years I’ve been working in research, it’s hard to remember a more exciting time to be a researcher. Many of the old certainties about measurement are crumbling, many of our tools no longer have the reach they used to, and our fundamental assumptions about human behaviour are being upturned. It’s the last of these that excites me the most because what it means is that, as an industry, we are rediscovering that market research is first and foremost a social science. This means we can tap into all those subjects that deal with human behaviour in its social and cultural setting. This includes mainstream subjects such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, and economics. But it also includes fascinating new areas of study like social neuroscience, behavioural economics, and human evolutionary biology. My job title here at Research First is ‘Head of Insight’ but I’ve been lobbying to have it changed to ‘Chief Social Scientist’ for this very reason.

In the 30 years I’ve been working in research, it’s hard to remember a more exciting time to be a researcher

It’s also important to note that these ideas from the social sciences shouldn’t just shape the work we do with our clients but should also inform the way we approach our own practice. For instance, while it feels like you’re reasoning your way through your life, that’s rarely the case. Instead, all our brains are wired to take shortcuts, to be influenced by how things are framed, and profoundly shaped by what others are doing. When we talk about knowing something, we really mean experiencing what the neurologist Robert Burton called a “feeling of knowing”. The challenge for all of us is to recognise this distinction, and to remember that we often respond to situations out of habit, unaware that habits have histories. But most of all, as Newton himself noted, we need to keep reminding ourselves that when it comes to human beings “what we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean”.

This article originally appeared in the InterVIEW Q3 October 2018 

The Unbearable Madness of Crowds

Why EVERYTHING Takes Longer Than You Expect

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Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, once said that “the middle of every successful project looks like a disaster”. I’ve always loved that idea, but the view from social science tends to be that it’s the start of projects where the problems lie. When we estimate how long a project will take, it seems we’re wired to chronically underestimate the time needed. This is such a common problem that it is known as ‘The Planning Fallacy’. It’s expressed even better in Hofstadter’s Law. Named after the cognitive scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, this law states that “it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law”.

The important part for our purposes is that ‘always’ part, because we fall into this planning trap over and over again. It’s not that we can’t see that projects tend to miss deadlines and budgets, just that we think the next one will be work better.

This provides a wonderful lens into one of the most counteractive findings from psychology – that none of us is much good at predicting how we’re going to feel in future. Predicting future emotions is called ‘affective forecasting’ and all the research evidence shows that its rarely straightforward. The problem isn’t, as the Rolling Stones noted, that we can’t always get what we want, it’s that we rarely know what we need. This has real implications for your well being because it shows that while right now you might think a new house, spouse, or waistline will make you happy, the chances are they won’t. Or at least not in the way you were hoping

The gap between what we think we’ll feel when we make our predictions and what we actually end up feeling is called, imaginatively, ‘the impact bias’. This bias has two parts – intensity and duration. This describes how achieving our goals doesn’t make us as happy as we expected (the intensity of the emotion), and how that happiness doesn’t last as long as we anticipated (the duration of the emotion).

We fail to understand how we’ll feel in future, because, as Psychology Today put it, “we have trouble seeing through the filter of the now”. It’s the same with predicting how long projects will take. What seems to be at fault here is a cognitive bias known as ‘The Optimism Bias’. This describes how we overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes and underestimate negative ones. If you don’t think that sounds like you, it might surprise you to read that it is “one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics”. Given this, it’s no surprise that all of us at some point will get to enjoy “the whooshing noise” deadlines make as they go by[i].

As a result, at the start of every new project we manage to convince ourselves that, this time, the best-case scenario will be realised. When we ‘plan’ we tend to focus on the details of the project steps rather than simply reflecting on how long it took to do something similar previously. But with projects as with so much in life, thinking about past performances rather than best cases is usually the smarter bet.

Carl Davidson is the Chief Social Scientist at Research First

 

References

I’ve used the Kanter quote for years, and it’s all over the internet, but it’s not really clear to me where it comes from. It might be that the original is actually “everything feels like a failure when you are in the middle”. If any of you know the original and the source, please get in touch.

‘The Planning Fallacy’ is another brainchild of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It’s covered well in Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It’s also worth reading Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross’s (1994) “Exploring the Planning Fallacy” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 67, No. 3. 366-381.

You can read about Hofstadter’s Law in his wonderful (1980) Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Vintage Books Edition, p. 152 or find a great summary in Oliver Burkeman’s (2008) “Why everything takes longer than you think” (The Guardian, August 2nd, 2008)

The best place to start reading about The Optimism Bias is Tali Sharot’s (2011) “The Optimism Bias”, Current Biology Volume 21, Issue 23, pages R941-R945. That is where I got the quote about “one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology” from.

The line about deadlines whooshing by is, of course, a tribute the great and often missed Douglas Adams, from The salmon of doubt: Hitchhiking the galaxy one last time. London: Macmillan, 2002.

Why EVERYTHING Takes Longer Than You Expect

The Secret to Happiness … isn’t so Secret!

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It’s not often you find a social scientist who is unequivocal about what their research means. Instead, what most of us do is line up our disclaimers (‘this study suggests…’) and talk about the limitations of our work (‘more research is clearly needed’).

This happens so often that Harry Truman famously asked for a one-handed economist because he was tired of his economic advisors qualifying their recommendations with “on the other hand…”.

Truman would have liked Richard Waldinger. Waldinger is the current director of The Harvard Study of Development, and a man who has no time for equivocation. He writes “the clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period”.

The previous director of the study, George Valliant, was even more succinct. He was adamant the results of the study could be captured in five words: “Happiness is love, full stop”. Elsewhere he gave himself the luxury of using fourteen-words, noting “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people”.

“the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people” – George Valliant, The Harvard Study of Development

Sure, what goes on inside your head matters (as you’d expect a psychologist to say) but you are much more than what Errol Morris called the “buzzings in the ball of electric jelly inside [your] skull”. Your brain exists inside a physical body, which then lives in a social world. You were born to move and, as part of a social species, born to connect.

Of course, it makes no sense to separate these dimensions in this way. We arrived at being human through the interplay of those three things. We have the brains we have because our bodies move the way they do and because we are part of a social species. Still, being able to shift between these three perspectives will help you better understand why you make worse decisions when you’re hungry or feeling lonely, and why having stronger social ties will keep you healthier and help you live longer.

You may have already worked out where this going: The evidence from the social sciences couldn’t be clearer: To find more fulfillment in your life, keep learning; remain active; and stay connected.

The evidence from the social sciences couldn’t be clearer: To find more fulfillment in your life, keep learning; remain active; and stay connected.

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Notes:

The Truman quote is all over the internet but I can’t find any published evidence that he ever actually said it. The closest I can find is the reference “As quoted in: To provide for amendment of the Bretton Woods agreements act, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1976” from https://izquotes.com/quote/352704.

The Harvard Study of Development’s might be the longest continuous study of adult life ever. It has tracked over 720 men from Boston since 1939 and is still collecting data from the surviving participants. Its  website is http://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/. There are many publications on that site worth reading, and the Study even has its own Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Study).

The Waldinger quote comes from the TEDx talk he gave in 2015 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-7zAkwAOYg) and you can see a transcript of that talk at https://singjupost.com/robert-waldinger-on-the-good-life-at-tedxbeaconstreet-full-transcript/?singlepage=1&print=pdf.

The five word summary by George Vaillant comes from Scott Stossel’s “What Makes Us Happy: Revisited”, The Atlantic, May 2013.

The fourteen word version comes from Joshua Shenk’s What Makes Us Happy”, The Atlantic, June 2009.

To be fair, the idea that close relationships are the key to a happy life is well-known in social psychology, as is the link to better health outcomes. For instance, have a look at David Myers (1999) “Close Relationships and Quality of Life” in Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, edited by Daniel Kahneman et al., Russell Sage Foundation.

The Errol Morris quote is from his “is there such a thing as truth” in The Boston Review, April 30 2018

The Secret to Happiness … isn’t so Secret!

Putting a Man on The Moon

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It might alarm you to realise just how much of your life you’re going to spend at work. For the average person, it adds up to over 90,000 hours. Even counting weekends and holidays, that’s over a third of all your waking hours across your working life. Given this, it’s going to be hard to find much fulfilment in the rest of your life if you’re reluctant to go to work every day.  If you hate your job, or even if you don’t but are really only turning up for the pay cheque, then for your own sanity you need to change something.

The most obvious thing to do is to look for a more meaningful job. Which really means finding one that has a clear purpose. The evidence is very clear on this point – the people who work for not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises tend to be much more satisfied with their jobs and much happier with their lives. And it’s not that happier people tend to gravitate towards this kind of work either, the effect is seen for people with a range of temperaments. As Arthur Brooks has said “the happiest people feel like they are needed”. In contrast, thinking your work is pointless is a recipe for misery.

If you can’t find a more meaningful job then it might be time to look for more meaning in your current one. Here the social sciences are useful because they teach us, categorically, that the meaning we find in our work has less to do with the task than with how we think about it. For instance, focusing on the larger purpose your organisation serves rather than the details of your job in isolation.

There is a famous story about how, during a visit to the NASA Space Center in Houston, President John F Kennedy stopped to talk to janitor who was holding a broom. JFK introduced himself in his usual inimitable way (“Hi, I’m Jack…) and asked the janitor what he was doing. To which the janitor replied “I’m helping put a man on the moon”. The janitor didn’t see his job as just sweeping floors, but as playing a small role in that giant leap for mankind.

Reframing your job in terms of a greater purpose like this will certainly help you find more meaning in it. You can start from Steve Jobs’ brilliant line about the kind of work that makes “a little dent in the universe” and focus on how yours might leave its own mark.

Framing certainly matters but changing the narrative is unlikely to be enough on its own (even if you’re helping put a man on the moon, there will still be days when the work grates). What you also need to do is look for moments of meaning, either in your day or across the week. This is the third tip from the social sciences, and it stresses how you can pursue these moments of meaning by stretching yourself. Look for ways that you can take on more responsibility or volunteer for those projects and tasks that are at the outer limit of your ability. Remember that you’re not doing this to lift your workplace’s performance but because it will be good for your sanity.

Interestingly, the line about denting the universe by Steve Jobs is only part of what he actually said. Jobs knew the value of stretching to bring out the best in all of us, and he was clear that “at Apple [we look for] someone who really wants to get in a little over his (sic) head and make a little dent in the universe”. It’s great advice, and we should all spend more time getting in a little over our heads.

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Sources

The working hours statistics are from “What Percentage of Your Life Will You Spend at Work?” on the ReviseSociology website (https://revisesociology.com/2016/08/16/percentage-life-work/).

The research about people working for not-for-profits and social enterprises is Martin Binder’s (2016) “…Do it with joy!” – Subjective well-being outcomes of working in non-profit organizations”, Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 54, Pages 64-84.

The Arthur Brooks’ quote is in Uri Fridman’s (2006) “7 Ways to Find Meaning at Work”, The Atlantic July 4th 2016. The point that “it’s not that happier people tend to gravitate towards this kind of work either” is about ensuring the result is not a product of selection bias, which is the kind of bias introduced by how the people in the study are selected.

The research about the difference between the task and how we perceive it is in Brent Ross, Kathryn Dekas, and Amy Wrzesniewski’s (2010). “On the Meaning of Work: A Theoretical Integration and Review” in Research in Organizational Behavior 30, 91–127. That review is the best summary of the research about work and meaning you’ll find.

The NASA story is famous but also undoubtedly apocryphal. There is a good explanation of why it can’t be true here: https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-name-of-the-janitor-at-NASA-who-when-asked-about-his-role-by-President-Kennedy-said-he-was-helping-to-put-a-man-on-the-moon. The NASA Space Center in Houston is now known as the Kennedy Space Center in JFK’s honour but, for obvious reasons, wasn’t called that when Kennedy visited.

The Steve Jobs quote comes from – and I’m not making this up – the February 1985 issue of Playboy. I was only reading it for the references. And the reference is “Playboy Interview: Steven Jobs”, Playboy, Vol 32 (2) pages 49-58, 70, 174-184. The ‘dent in the universe’ line is on page 58.

The piece about the impact that day-to-day irritations have on satisfaction at work is from Jeremy Dean’s (2011) “10 Psychological Keys to Job Satisfaction” from Jeremy’s PsyBlog (https://www.spring.org.uk/2011/07/10-psychological-keys-to-job-satisfaction.php). The PsyBlog is a great resource and well worth bookmarking.

Putting a Man on The Moon

Why You Can’t Pay People to Give Blood

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In a previous post we talked about the rise of ‘bullshit jobs’ (here) but that analysis only addresses part of what is wrong with the world of work. You have undoubtedly heard the expression that ‘people quit managers, not organisations’, and there is plenty of evidence that this is the case: For instance in one Gallup study about 50% of the 7,200 adults surveyed left a job to get away from their manager.

There is clearly something wrong with the way many of us are managed, but what is it? The view from the social sciences suggests this might be because so much of what passes for management ‘science’ embodies a profound misunderstanding of how people behave and what it takes to get the best from them.

Let’s just look at something that is central to the role of any manager, recognising and rewarding performance. Many managers are surprised to learn that performance-related pay doesn’t encourage people to work harder, and often has the opposite effect. This is because it fundamentally misunderstands what motivates people to do a good job at work. Way back in 1970 Richard Titmuss discovered that paying people to donate blood actually reduced the number of people willing to give blood. It might seem obvious that if someone is already willing to do something, then paying them to do it would encourage them even more. But the clue is in the language we use: people ‘give’ blood they don’t ‘sell’ it.

What Titmuss found, and most managers miss, is that extrinsic motivations displace intrinsic ones. Intrinsic motivations are what drive us to do something because we find that task interesting, enjoyable, or worthwhile. The motivation to do the task, and do it well, come from within. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is about doing something for what it will bring you. Psychologists have known for a long time that explicit incentives often backfire by undermining the value inherent in the task. It may seem bizarre, but the research is clear that if there is something you love doing for the sake of it (such as playing tennis or golf), than getting paid to do it will probably make you enjoy it less. This is also why you really don’t want to turn your hobby into a job.

Rather than writing performance plans and setting targets, the secret to motivating staff seems to be in compliments and pizza. I’m not being flippant either, a great experiment by Dan Ariely demonstrated that giving staff pizza or compliments was more effective at keeping them motivated than giving them cash rewards. People work harder when they feel appreciated, which is also why it’s a good idea to compliment them in public (and criticise them in private).

Managers are an easy target for social scientists but you might be surprised to hear that social science has a great deal of sympathy for managers too. This is because managers struggle with the same biases as the rest of us, and are usually just as clueless about those biases. This means they are just not very good at judging other people. Like all of us, they will probably be unaware how their impressions of others are influenced by how good looking those people are, how tall they are, and how often they talk in meetings. The research into how we judge others is clear that we see those who speak-up first, or loudest, or most often, as being more charismatic than those that don’t. This can lead a ‘tyranny of the articulate’, where the best talkers win the debate even though they have the weakest argument. But often we’re drawn to the talkers regardless of what they actually have to say. There is an easy way to see this for yourself: Google ‘how to be more charismatic’ and what you will find are endless lists about how to talk, dress, and impress but very little about the quality of your message.

There is plenty more we could add to this criticism of management in modern workplace but the larger point should have been made by now. The root cause of all the problems outlined above is that managers are either taught or come to believe that the world is just what it seems to their senses (a perspective known as ‘naïve realism’). From the perspective of the social sciences, we can see that nothing could be further from the truth[i].

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[i]               The Gallup study is quoted in Benjamin Snyder’s (2015) “Half of us have quit our job because of a bad boss”, Fortune, April 2, 2015. There is a useful systematic analysis of performance-related pay and bonuses by Bernd Irlenbusch, and Dirk Sliwka titled “Incentives, Decision Frames, and Motivation Crowding Out: an Experimental Investigation”, IZA Discussion Paper No. 1758. (September 2005). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=822866. There is also a nice short summary in Samuel Bowles (2009) “When Economic Incentives Backfire”, Harvard Business Review, March 2009 Issue. The concepts of intrinsic and motivation are covered in most undergraduate psychology textbooks but there is a nice summary in Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci’s (2000) “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions”, in Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000). Richard Titmuss’s 1970 study is in his The gift relationship: From human blood to social policy. London: Allen & Unwin, and is well worth reading. One of the reasons why extrinsic rewards crowd out intrinsic motivations is explained by The OverJustification Effect. Have a look at Lepper, M.P; Greene, D.; Nisbett, R. E (1973). “Undermining children’s Intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 28 (1): 129–137 to learn more. The Dan Ariely experiment is documented in his (2016). Payoff: The hidden logic that shapes our motivations, New York: TED Books, Simon & Schuster. For a great insight to the power of peer pressure to motivate staff, see Monsalve MN, Pemmaraju SV, Thomas GW, Herman T, Segre AM, Polgreen PM (2015) “Do Peer Effects Improve Hand Hygiene Adherence among Healthcare Workers?”, Infection control and hospital epidemiology, 2014: 35(10):1277-1285. To find out more about ‘the beauty bias’, try Deborah Rhode’s eminently readable (2010) The beauty bias: The injustice of appearance in life and law. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. The ‘height premium’ is covered in Joe Pinsker’s (2015) “The Financial Perks of Being Tall”, The Atlantic, May 18, 2015. The description of “the tyranny of the articulate” comes from the “Pinterest Founder Ben Silbermann’s Lessons on Decision Making, Values, and Taking Time for Yourself”, which is a Village Global post on Medium (https://medium.com/@villageglobal/pinterest-founder-ben-silbermanns-lessons-on-decision-making-values-and-taking-time-for-yourself-5c76c1517a38). To understand how easy it is to be fooled by charisma, have a look at Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie’s (2015). Wiser: Getting beyond groupthink to make groups smarter, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston. It’s also worth reading John Antonakis’s (2012) “Learning Charisma”, Harvard Business Review, June 2012.

Why You Can’t Pay People to Give Blood

Are You in a Bullshit Job?

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Teddy Roosevelt once said that “far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”. There is lots of advice about how to ‘work hard’ but what about that ‘work worth doing’ part? What if the real problem is that your entire job is meaningless make-work? David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, argues that this is a much more common problem than we might think. He has called this ‘The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ and his ideas are worth considering.

Graeber draws special attention to jobs in the service sector but argues that about half of the jobs in the modern economy are pointless. Count yourself in this half if your job is really about fixing problems that shouldn’t exist (what he calls ‘duct tapers’); keeping other people on task (‘task masters’); managing the performance of others (‘box tickers’); making other people feel more important (‘flunkies’); or promoting the interests of others (‘goons’). As he said, “it’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working”.

Graeber’s idea is important because he’s clear that he’s not talking about ‘shit jobs’ as we traditionally understand them, the kinds of jobs that come with poor pay, conditions, and low prestige. Instead, he’s talking about jobs that look perfectly respectable from the outside but are essentially hollow on the inside. He singles out corporate lawyers as a great example of what he’s talking about (but he’s also smart enough to see that, as a Professor of Anthropology, he shouldn’t be throwing stones at anyone). Graeber’s point is that it’s hard to find meaning in your work if you think your work is pointless.

To which the obvious solution seems to be to find work that has meaning and value. Except this is where ‘The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ becomes really interesting. Alongside the creation of all those jobs that are pointless, the modern economy seems to be filling even the good jobs with more and more pointless tasks. Graeber calls this “the creeping bullshitization of real jobs”. It describes how compliance and administration crowd out the ability to do any actual work. One of the earliest examples he used was closest to his heart, that of universities. He notes how academics find themselves doing less and less studying, teaching, or research; and more and more time measuring, assessing, or quantifying the way they should be studying, teaching, or researching. He also talks about the bizarre phenomenon in universities of “forming more committees to discuss the problems of too many committees”. You can understand why when you read that the average US employee spends less than half of each day on their real job, with the majority of their time taken with witless emails or pointless meetings.

As a result, it should be no surprise that so many people are disengaged from their work. Gallup has an annual international survey that tracks just how disengaged most people are. The latest survey shows that while only a minority (16%) actively hate their job, the majority (51%) are just turning up for the pay cheque. Only a third of workers say they love their job and try to make the company better every day. But perhaps the best indicator of how disengaged people are from their work is the fact that heart attacks are more likely to occur on a Monday than any other day of the week [i].

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[i]               The Roosevelt quote comes from Teddy’s (1903) Address to the New York State Agricultural Association, Syracuse, New York, September 7th 1903. David Graeber originally outlined his idea about Bullshit Jobs in Strike! magazine (“On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant, August 2013). He expanded that idea in his (2018) book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, Simon and Schuster, New York. And wrote about what it meant for academics in The Chronicle Of Higher Education (“Are you in a BS job? In Academe, you’re hardly alone”, May 2018). In 2018 Graeber’s argument attracted a great deal of interest, and in this blog I have also drawn on Normal Heller’s “The Bullshit-Job Boom” (The New Yorker, June 7th 2018) and Elaine Glaser’s “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber” (The Guardian, May 25th 2018). The data about how the average US employee spends more than half their day on administration is from Andre Spicer’s (2017) “From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over”, The Guardian 23 Nov 2017. The Gallup data are from Anna Robaton’s (2017) “Why so many Americans hate their jobs”, CBS News MoneyWatch March 31, 2017 (www.cbsnews.com/news/why-so-many-americans-hate-their-jobs/). The heart attack statistic is in Anahad O’Connor’s (2006) “The Claim: Heart Attacks are More Common on Mondays”, The New York Times March 14 2006.

 

 

Are You in a Bullshit Job?