Monday, August 31, 2015

Work or Leisure?

Of late psychologists have been surprised to discover that many of their best experiments cannot be replicated. Since scientific knowledge is based on the fact that the experiment that you perform in your lab will, if conducted correctly, produce the same result in my lab, the fact that experiments cannot be replicated suggests that they are something other than science.

For want of a better term, let’s call it ideology. For my part I do not have sufficient data to prove the case one way or another, but I do suspect that in our ideologically driven universities, researchers often skew experiments toward results that affirm bias. I suspect that they do not even know that they are doing it.

Even psychologists whose work seems unimpeachable often seem compelled to put it in the service of leftist ideology. This does not mean that the science is wrong; it means that we need to be more cautious about how we interpret results.

Consider the research performed by Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz about decision-making and choice. Schwartz has shown that when you have too many options, you are likely to make a bad choice. When you face a multitude of options you assume that you do not have to make a choice between two imperfect choices. You will imagine that if you wait long enough something perfect will come along.

Schwartz summarizes his argument:

When people have too much choice, they are paralyzed rather than liberated. They make poor decisions. And even when they overcome paralysis and manage to make good decisions, they are dissatisfied with them. The “paradox” of choice is that even though some choice is essential for human well being, too much choice can be its enemy. And the debilitating effects of too much choice are magnified when people follow another dictate from our cultural ideology and seek out only the “best.” People who look for the best are more paralyzed and less satisfied with decisions than people who look for “good enough”.

One thinks of the dating scene in a large cosmopolitan metropolis. The more singles there are, the more difficult it is to choose one. Young people get the impression that they can always do better and if they choose one person they will be settling.

One might add that Republican primary voters are facing a field where they have too many choices, and thus are more likely to choose poorly… at least until the field is winnowed down.

This does not mean that choice is bad or that it should not be freely exercised. If you have to choose between too many alternatives and too few, you would do better to have too many.

Be that as it may, Schwartz has recently offered some interesting reflections about work in the New York Times. While I think that we ought seriously to question the Gallop survey upon which Schwartz is basing his analysis, namely the one that suggests that 90% of workers the world over hate their jobs, it is still worthwhile to examine his response to an opinion of Adam Smith.

One possibility is that it’s just human nature to dislike work. This was the view of Adam Smith, the father of industrial capitalism, who felt that people were naturally lazy and would work only for pay. “It is the interest of every man,” he wrote in 1776 in “The Wealth of Nations,” “to live as much at his ease as he can.”

Work may be struggle. In fact, it seems always to be struggle. Of course, it is fair that work be compensated, but still that does not mean that people are just in it for the money.

Smith’s view, which is well worth examining, suggests that human beings are naturally lazy, addicted to sloth and would not work if they did not have to. Were one to follow Smith one would have to say that the truth of our existence is vacation, and that we would all jump at the chance to have more leisure time. John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that labor-saving devices would make it possible for people to work fewer hours and to enjoy their leisure more.

The fact is, work-saving devices have created new kinds of jobs. They have not caused people to work less.

These theories, as good as they sound, overlook the fact that when we work we participate in a social organization, employ our skills and energy toward a productive end, and involve ourselves in a myriad of relationships with other people, colleagues, employees, staff, bosses….

As opposed to sitting around the house or the golf course doing nothing but whiling away the time, working, for a social being, is an active way to affirm one’s moral being. Beyond the money, it has much to recommend it.

Schwartz continues to suggest that when management theorists began with the idea that people hate to work they designed methods that forced people to work by rote and deprived them of any discretion over how they did their jobs.

Schwartz explains:

About a century later, it helped shape the scientific management movement, which created systems of manufacture that minimized the need for skill and close attention — things that lazy, pay-driven workers could not be expected to have.

Today, in factories, offices and other workplaces, the details may be different but the overall situation is the same: Work is structured on the assumption that we do it only because we have to. The call center employee is monitored to ensure that he ends each call quickly. The office worker’s keystrokes are overseen to guarantee productivity.

Of course, it is always possible to cherry-pick facts to support an argument. The situation that Schwartz describes does exist, but it is not efficient and it certainly does not exist everywhere. Ideology suggests that capitalism makes workers into cogs in a machine. In fact, capitalism also self-corrects. If it merely exploited workers it would long since ceased to exist.

Given the profit motive and the incentive to have happier workers, most businesses have figured out that structuring work on the Smith assumption does not produce the best products and services. They adapt. They do not need professors, even great professors, to tell them how to run their businesses.

The situation that Schwartz describes must exist in some places, but I find it to be the exception to the rule. I have many clients who discuss the way their jobs are structured. Most of them work for employers who allow them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

And I, as you, have had occasion to call technical support centers for help with complex problems related to, for example, computers. I know that the calls are monitored, but I have never had the sense, in using Dell support, that the technician was trying to end the call quickly.

Schwartz continues:

To start with, I don’t think most people recognize themselves in Adam Smith’s description of wage-driven idlers. Of course, we care about our wages, and we wouldn’t work without them. But we care about more than money. We want work that is challenging and engaging, that enables us to exercise some discretion and control over what we do, and that provides us opportunities to learn and grow. We want to work with colleagues we respect and with supervisors who respect us. Most of all, we want work that is meaningful — that makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way.

We want these things so much that we may even be willing to take home a thinner pay envelope to get them. Lawyers leave white-shoe firms to work with the underclass and underserved. Doctors abandon cushy practices to work in clinics that serve poorer areas. Wall Street analysts move to Washington to work as economic advisers in government.

For some reason, when liberals think about meaningful work they think of charity, of serving the underprivileged, of being a community organizer. They do not imagine that building a factory in which underprivileged people can find remunerated work is better for their self-respect than being on a perpetual dole and being beholden to do-gooders who are so wealthy that they think they no longer have to work for pay.

Producing goods and providing services is meaningful work. It is certainly more meaningful to give a man a job than to offer him charity.

One hastens to add that many employers have discovered that their workers work best when they are given some measure of discretion over how they do their jobs. It’s basic to management theory, as I understand it, to know that good managers allow their employees to do their jobs; they do not tell their employees how to do their jobs.

True enough, there is more to it than wages. But, work becomes meaningful because it allows you to contribute to society, to have your days organized and structured, to provide for yourself and your family and to be part of a group or a team or a company.


Anonymous said...

Charity (expression of love) is the only authentic purpose of work (or leisure) if one takes to heart the Judeo-Christian commandments to love God and to love one's neighbor.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Since scientific knowledge is based on the fact that the experiment that you perform in your lab will, if conducted correctly, produce the same result in my lab, the fact that experiments cannot be replicated suggests that they are something other than science. For want of a better term, let’s call it ideology.

I'm very interested in this question, but I'm not sure how we should categorize this failure of perfect reproducibility. Perhaps ideology might fit, but science can also deal with probabilistic events, or ones where all the variables can't be 100% controlled, but can still offer guidance.

Like you might imagine when Humans first domesticated wolves, perhaps they found that some wolves would respond to free food and be friendlier, while others stayed distrustful and would prefer to steal your sheep than take free meat that offers no challenge. And so a good prehistoric scientist might come to the conclusion that the friendly wolves should be allowed to live, and the unfriendly ones hunted and killed. And that's artificial selection in action, and eventually we created dogs as our loyal companions, and the remaining distrustful wolves stayed far away from humans.

But before that divergence was complete, some could say the failure was due to ideology, trying to impose your will upon the world, but in the end, it simply showed that we DO have the power to partially impose your will upon the world, and change its circumstances.

And perhaps similar artificial selection is applied on humans, maybe less obvertly, but since we're also social animals, we can be rewarded with "free food" to be cooperative, and develop a good science of social cooperation theory, and it could work very well in most situations, but in some situations, it fails completely, and we may or may not be able to see what changed, or why some individuals are "untrainable" while others are compliant and trusting.

Skinner's behaviorism followed such "ideals", and found behaviorial modification could be applied to others and self, where important higher skills are learned through repetitive positive and negative feedback. And if experimenters can eliminate all the variables, especially like free will, then outcomes can be predicted with a higher success, although other sometimes positive behaviors like initiative and creativity might be suppressed as well.

I like the way Schumacher expresses this:
Schumacher argues that the ideal science would have a proper hierarchy of knowledge from pure knowledge for understanding at the top of the hierarchy to knowledge for manipulation at the bottom. At the level of knowledge for manipulation, the aims of prediction and control are appropriate. But as we deal with higher levels they become increasingly absurd. As he says "Human beings are highly predictable as physico-chemical systems, less predictable as living bodies, much less so as conscious beings and hardly at all as self aware persons."

The idea of hierarchy of being allows us to see that "science as repeatable experiments" only tells us about the lowest level of being, of dead matter, and anything else requires some else.

Perhaps that something else could be called ideology, and perhaps that's because ideology works, as long as you can completely control all the variables of life, or change what life is, to suit your needs.

priss rules said...

"The fact is, work-saving devices have created new kinds of jobs. They have not caused people to work less."

Because you have to work and earn to afford those work-saving devices that aint cheap.

priss rules said...

If given a choice, your average American will choose this:

priss rules said...

The problem of too-many-choices is easy to demonstrate.

Take out one or two dvds, and you will settle on one or the other, but take out 10 dvds and you might trouble making your mind.

Internet offers so many choices, but precisely for that reason, people click from one thing to another without fully reading any single article.

In the natural world, too-many-choices serves as a defense mechanism. When herrings swim in large schools in the sea, predators get distracted by too-muchness. They can't settle on which fish to grab.

David Foster said...

I wonder if Schwartz is aware that "scientific management" (Taylorism) was extremely popular among the leadership of the Soviet Union. It has little to do with capitalism per se, but rather with a particular view of how work should be organized and managed.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, David. I suspected as much, but didn't have the facts.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Anonymous @August 31, 2015 at 8:48 AM:

Are you a Judeo-Christian?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Schwartz is very popular in the world of TED.

Pogo: I never said I was a diplomat said...

There are doctors with cushy practices?
What a lie. Name ten.
Sounds like another typical social science conclusion.

I know doctors who've gone on long sabbaticals to do mission medical care, not because their regular job was cushy (far from it), but due to the sheer joy of doing multiple surgeries or exams and never submitting a bill or dictating a lengthy note or fear being sued..

They use their paying gig to fund the same job done for free in Third Worldia.
Like a highly paid barista who paints on the side: don't quit your day job.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"Wall Street analysts move to Washington to work as economic advisers in government."

You mean like Jack Lew?