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How to disrupt mindless accumulation and increase happiness

Humans have a proven tendency to over-accumulate chocolates

Humans have a proven tendency to over-accumulate chocolates

A new study* by academics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business has highlighted an unfortunate trend among people of all ages and situations: a tendency to work mindlessly and to over-accumulate items even when they will derive no pleasure from it.

The academics posited an interesting question – ‘Do people over-earn—forgo leisure to work and earn beyond their needs?’ And they devised two interesting experiments which showed that yes, individuals do tend to over-earn. They also showed that people over-earn not because the work they’re doing is is intrinsically pleasurable or because they want to look at the items they’ve earned – but because people simply work until they’re tired out.

Experiment number 1: chocolates

In the first experiment, the academics sat people at a table in front of a computer and gave them some headphones. The experiment was divided into two five minute phases. In the first phase, they could relax and listen to music (simulating leisure), or press a button to listen a noise (simulating work). The participants were told to listen to the noise a certain number of times in order to earn chocolate and the computer displayed how many chocolates they’d earned. In this phase, the participants couldn’t eat the chocolates -they could only earn them. Some people were paid highly (they got a lot of chocolates per noise), some people were paid meagrely.

In phase two, the participants were given five minutes to eat the chocolates they’d earned in phase one. Any chocolates they didn’t eat had to be left on the table. Participants were told this would be the case before the experiment even started.

“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,” said the academics.

The outcome? Having predicted how many chocolates they might want to eat at the start of the experiment (3.75-3.77), all participants earned more chocolates than they could eat. All worked too hard and left chocolates on the table in phase 2. High earners left more chocolates on the table and were more prone to ‘mindless accumulation.’

The chart below shows the outcome, where M is mean, MD is median and SD is standard deviation.

Crazed chocolate earning

Experiment two: jokes

In a second experiment, candidates were given the option of listening to a noise in phase one in order to earn jokes in phase two. The jokes were automatically displayed, one by one, on the computer screen. The more jokes that were earned, the faster the display shifted.

Again, the researchers found that the participants tended to earn more jokes than they could consume. They also found that the more jokes people earned, the less happy they were in phase two (possibly because they were unable to read them all).

How to mitigate the urge to mindless accumulation

Finally, the researchers tried one final chocolate-related experiment in which participants weren’t allowed to earn more chocolates after they’d achieved enough for their own personal consumption. They were, however, allowed to keep listening to the noise if they wanted to.

Under this paradigm the researchers found that subjects didn’t keep listening to the noise (suggesting they derived little intrinsic pleasure from it) once they’d earned the maximum number of chocolates. They also reported higher levels of happiness in both phase one and phase two of the experiment. In phase one, they listened to more music. In phase two, they didn’t have to leave as many chocolates on the table.

Earning caps disrupt mindless accumulation and increase happiness, postulated the researchers. Hopefully the European Union won’t read their research.

*’Overearning’ by Christopher K. Hsee, Jiao Zhang, Cindy F. Cai and Shirley Zhang

Comments (3)

  1. Both of these experiments are fatally flawed. In real life this is no arbitary cut off beyond which you are unable to consume and there are benefits to both over-working and accumulating. Under a captalist system, over-accumulation of non-consumed goods leads to wealth. Wealth can be used as capital to invest. If it’s not invested, the mere possession of that wealth contributes to higher social status, creating an incentive for its accumulation. These experiments were clearly concocted by Marxist academics seeking justification for bashing anyone better off than themselves.

  2. People accumulate wealth in order to keep it for future needs. That’s where the uncertainty comes. How much do you think is enough? I read recently that 500k British pounds will buy you an annuity of only about 20k pounds. Then why would you not work your ass off in order to earn and keep as much as possible for the future?

  3. Both the above responses (Damon and Doxy) simply assume that people are behaving sensibly in ‘real life’ despite the evidence from the experiment that people don’t always behave sensibly. Over-working is by definition excessive; if there are useful rewards, such as mitigating future risks, it is not over-working. The experiment demonstrates that some people seem to overwork even when explanations such as status from wealth and future risks are largely removed. One weakness of the study is that it looks at the average of the group and does not discuss how many, if any, of the participants behaved in a sensible (or close to sensible) manner. That would be useful information.

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