You Can’t Take It With You, but You Still Want More: A new study illustrates humans’ deeply rooted desire to earn more than they possibly can consume

January 4, 2014

You Can’t Take It With You, but You Still Want More


All work and no play may just be a result of “mindless accumulation.”

So say scholars behind research, published in the journal Psychological Science in June, that shows a deeply rooted instinct to earn more than can possibly be consumed, even when this imbalance makes us unhappy.Given how many people struggle to make ends meet, this may seem a frivolous problem. Nonetheless, the researchers note that productivity rates have risen, which theoretically lets many people be just as comfortable as previous generations while working less. Yet they choose not to.

To explore the powerful lure of material accumulation, the researchers constructed an experiment in two phases. In the first phase, subjects sat for five minutes in front of a computer wearing a headset, and had the choice of listening to pleasant music or to obnoxious-sounding white noise.

They were told they could earn pieces of Dove chocolate when they listened to the white noise a certain number of times. Some participants had to listen fewer times to get each piece of chocolate, making them “high earners”; some had to listen more times, making them “low earners.”

All were told that there would be a second phase to the experiment, also lasting five minutes, in which they could eat the chocolate they earned. But they were told they would forfeit any chocolate they couldn’t consume, and they were asked how much they expected to be able to eat.

On average, people in the high-earner group predicted that they could consume 3.75 chocolates.

But when it came time to “earn” chocolates, they accumulated well beyond their estimate. On average, they listened to enough white noise to earn 10.74 chocolates. Then they actually ate less than half of that amount.

In other words, they subjected themselves to harsh noise to earn more than they could consume, or predicted they could consume.

“We introduce the concept of ‘mindless accumulation,’ ” said one of the paper’s authors, Christopher Hsee, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “It’s a waste of effort,” he added, “But once people are in action, they can’t stop.”

The impulse seemed less pronounced, even mixed, with the low earners. They earned less chocolate than they predicted they could eat. But the high earners and the low earners listened to about the same amount of obnoxious noise in the five-minute period, which Dr. Hsee said strongly suggested that both groups were driven by the same thing: not by how much they need, but by how much work they could withstand.

How applicable is this to the real world, where people earn money, not chocolate, and can’t predict how long life will last, or whether they will need resources to prepare for a calamity? Hard to say, but the study does show that even when people know clear boundaries — that they absolutely can’t take the candy with them when they go — they still earn more than they can possibly use.

Michael Norton, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School who is familiar with the field, said the study’s implications were “enormous” in part because they can enlighten people to an unconscious motivation that leads to shortsighted, even unhappy choices.

Still, he said, choosing happiness or leisure over earning is challenging, in part because accumulation of money — or candy — is easier to measure than, say, happiness. “You can count Hershey’s Kisses,” Dr. Norton said. Being an involved parent or partner is not so quantifiable. “Most of the things that truly make us happy in life are harder to count,” he said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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