Time to Consult for NASA?

Photo Credit: NPR
Photo Credit: NPR
One of the best podcasts out there is NPR’s The Hidden Brain. Here is a recent episode discussing the challenges of being a, yawn, astronaut on a long voyage. It covers some fun research I did with David Comerford.
Here is the beginning of the print version. But you might want to check out the audio.

The poet John Berryman once wrote, “My mother told me as a boy (repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources.’ I conclude now I have no inner resources, because I am heavy bored.”

We’ve all been there: bored in class, bored at work, bored in stand still traffic. But why do we find boredom so unbearable? And, if we hate boredom so much, why do we still take boring jobs? This week on Hidden Brain, we try to answer these questions and more – hopefully, without boring you.

Bored at Work

The researcher Peter Ubel and his colleague, David Comerford, were curious about why people elect to do boring work. Ubel says, imagine applying to be one of those guards at the museum who stand around all day, telling visitors not to touch the paintings.

“At the time, it might sound like a wonderful job – I just stand there and do nothing, and they pay me for it,” Ubel says. “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.”

Ubel and Comerford ran an experiment to try to understand this gap, between the kind of work we think we will enjoy, and what we actually feel satisfied doing. They asked business school students to choose between two jobs. Either they could be paid $2.50 to sit in the back of the classroom and do nothing for five minutes, or they could elect to spend those five minutes sitting in the front of the class solving word puzzles.

“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,” Ubel said. “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.”

Peter Ubel calls this tendency effort aversion. And he thinks that this phenomenon is one reason people get stuck in boring jobs.

To read the rest of this article and listen to the audio, please visit NPR.

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