All work and no play makes Jack a mean-spirited boy

December 3, 2006 | By | Reply More

Americans work a lot.  According to this chart, we work 400 hours more per year than workers in many European countries.  In fact, we work the equivalent of 10 workweeks per year more.  What would you say if your boss walked into your office and asked you whether you would like to have an additional 10 weeks of vacation per year?

According to Juliet Schor, author of the overworked American (1991), American productivity has more than doubled since 1948. We could thus produce our 1948 standard of living in less than half the time that it took in 1948.  The average worker could now be taking off every other year with pay. We do not use any of this increase in productivity to reduce our hours, however.  Instead, we have continued to work harder and harder (many of us work two jobs) in order to have or maintain higher material standard of living. 

Schor raises this question: “what if satisfaction depends, not on absolute levels of consumption, but on one’s level relative to others?”  She suggests that our “consumerist treadmill” and hour-long our jobs have combined to form in “insidious cycle of work and spend.”

We often work hard only after commuting long distances.  And we have to pay for those expensive cars and the fuel goes in them.  The net result is another decrease in leisure time.  According to Schor, between 1960 and 1986, the time parents actually had available to do with children fell at least 10 hours per week.  Even though Schor’s 1991 statistics are somewhat dated, they point in an ominous direction.  See here, for more recent statistics.   Beware, that many business-oriented publications using creative approaches argue that Americans have more leisure time than they did in past decades.

Therefore, more than ever, Americans are scurrying about to make more money to pay for a chosen lifestyle.  Perhaps that lifestyle is not consciously chosen, but chosen it is. 

I’m going to switch gears at this point, and then make my point.  In the same year that Juliet Schor published her book, in 1991, Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett wrote a terrific book: The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. Their main point is that in most novel situations

One cannot predict with any accuracy of particular people will respond [to a situation].  At least one cannot do so using information about an individual’s personal dispositions or even about that individual’s past behavior.  This predictability ceiling is typically reflected in a maximum statistical correlation of .30 between measured individual differences on a given trait dimension and behavior in a novel situation that plausibly test that to mention.”  (pages 2-3).

If you want to find out who qualifies as a good Samaritan, simply devise a test to measure the people who have empathetic and good-hearted, dispositions, correct?  Not at all, according to Ross and Nisbett.  Any sort of test that measures a disposition toward empathy would leave the great bulk of peoples’ behavior unaccounted for.  What closes the gap?  The situation, rather than the person’s “inner qualities.”

In a now well-known experiment conducted in 1973 by Darley and Batson, seminarians at a religious seminary were sent on their way to deliver a practice sermon.  The topic of the sermon was “The Good Samaritan.”  The devious experimenters set up the experiment so that some of the subjects would be in a hurry to get to the sermon and others were allowed to take their time.  On the way to deliver their practice sermons , each of the subjects

came upon a man slumped in a doorway, head down, coughing and groaning.  As predicted practice by the experimenters], the late seminarians seldom helped; in fact, only 10% offered any assistance.  By contrast, with ample time on their hands, 63% of the early participants helped.

The actual behavior did not correlate well to the the experimenters’ pre-sermon predictions based on the seminarians’ dispositions.

Ross and Nisbett offer this experiment as a demonstration that situational determinants of altruistic behavior can be much more predictive of kind and generous behavior than “dispositional” characteristics of the subjects (attempts to measure which people are kind or generous).

Hmm . . .

We are much more likely to act empathetically and altruistically when we’re not in a hurry.  But Juliet Schor’s research shows that more than ever, we are in a hurry, scurrying to our job(s) to maintain our material comfort.

A few days ago, I was talking about these two books with Devi (the Devi who writes for this blog) and she raised the question of whether hard-heartedness (to the extent that you find it in Americans) might often be the result of scurrying around to maintain our material comfort.

Good question, Devi.

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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