Overearning? Another Reason Not to Believe Everything You Read in the Newspapers!

I just read another “drives me crazy” NYT article.  This is not unusual as Times writers often write about behavior, based on the research of business and economics professors.  However, there is little I read to indicate that the authors they quote know much about behavior as a scientific study.  The problem is that when such findings are reported in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Harvard Review or other well regarded publications, people actually believe what they read.  Writing for peer-reviewed journals, should be sufficient to indicate that at least the science is sound. The journalists may even hold to such a solid reference point before they publish findings. However, I am suggesting that it is not enough.  The writers on the Times’ staff should know how to evaluate the soundness of the methodology and thus the soundness of the conclusions for the very reason that many people will believe what they read.  It would help considerably if more care were taken by the authors and publishers in understanding the nature of experimental data and its analysis. If they did there would be a dramatic reduction in wrong-headed interpretations based on bad data.  

The particular article in question is based on work by a University of Chicago business professor, Christopher Hsee, who is doing research on what he calls Overearning.  What he concludes from an article published in Psychological Science is that “individuals do overearn, even at the cost of happiness and that overearning is a result of mindless accumulation…”  Not sure who on the board of editors of this journal evaluated methods in Hsee’s  design, but having read the research article, I can tell you that there are too many flaws for the findings attributed to ‘overearning’ to be taken seriously. The scope was narrow and the generalization way too great, yet now readers concern themselves with the idea of overearners based on some very wacky criteria.

In the study students were given a task in which they could earn Dove Chocolates by listening to white noise.  Subjects were asked before they started to indicate how many chocolates they thought they could eat. The number was just under four.  Chocolates had to be eaten in the experimental session.  Subjects were given headphones where music was piped in. 

“High-earning-rate subjects” were instructed that when they interrupted listening to music twenty times in order to listen to white noise (for two seconds), they would earn a chocolate.  A group of “low-earning-subjects” had to listen to 120 segments of white noise to earn the chocolate.  What they found was that the High Earning students ate just over four chocolates but earned on average 10.74.  The authors call the difference between what was eaten and what was earned, “mindless accumulation.” I believe the study was mindless.   The researcher assumed that people who continued to work to earn more chocolates than he/she could eat at the moment was a bad thing, deserving of a label of mindless overearners. Persistence at a task, diligence to keep on working, reinforcement for accumulation may have much more to do with the design as I saw it and nothing to do with mindlessness of any kind.  

Here is more on why this drives me crazy.  First, the authors clearly have no understanding of positive reinforcement.  People do more of what they are reinforced for doing.  If they are doing more than expected, there is some positive reinforcement somewhere in the process.  A beginning student in behavior analysis knows to do a functional analysis to understand where the contingencies of reinforcement are in the process.  In this study there was no understanding of what part of the process was reinforcing.  But a most troubling part of having an article published in a widely circulated newspaper like the NYTs it that the writer appeared to accept at face-value the generalized findings of mindless accumulation.  He accepted that “mindless accumulation” is real. This is the first and most fatal flaw in the work as reported.  The writer accepted that happiness in life can be determined by a self-rating scale and that accumulating more chocolates than you can eat is a measure related to happiness or unhappiness. Furthermore he accepted the statement of Professor Norton of Harvard that, “…the study’s implications were “enormous.”   How can there be enormous implications from a study that was flawed from beginning to end?  The problem is not only that some people will read this newspaper article and believe what was reported, but it could have been about something important like health, education, raising children or marital happiness that was reported as fact when it was not. 

We should, from time to time, examine how we know what we know.  In an era of “sound bites” and easy information, it is important that we are able to evaluate the conclusions and recommendations that are presented as “research findings.” All research is not the same, as this article demonstrates.  I believe that what Professor Hsee and his colleagues actually found was that college students earned more chocolates than they ate.  End of story.

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.