A while ago I had the chance to participate in a strange psychological experiment conducted by a young man. The premise of the experiment was simple. The test subjects are to look at 30 pictures. Looking at each picture would earn the subjects points that they may later spend on funny jokes they can read through in a 3 minute period at the end of the picture viewing task. The experimenter have emphasized that the points can only be spent in the context of the experiment; they can not be converted to any sort of cash bonus or carried over in anyway.
The pictures themselves are simple, too. On the one hand, one can choose to look at pleasant pictures of kittens, frolicking in the sun, or just looking cute in general. On the other hand, one can also choose to look at pictures of sewer rats. These are not cute pet rats, they are the sort that are vermin, being pictured in grimy environments and generally looked very unpleasant. The caveat was that looking at the pleasant kitten pictures can earn you a measly 5 points, while looking at pictures of the unpleasant sewer rats can earn you a whopping 100 points.
Considering the obvious difference in the rewards, I immediately chose to look at the rat pictures. Only when I was truly sick and tired of them, I may occasionally opt to look at pictures of kittens. Work hard! Tough it out! Do it for the rewards! Those were my attitudes that came up instinctively without me even thinking.
My “hard work” did indeed pay off. At the end of the experiment I had a bit over 2100 points accumulated. They were enough to pay for 21 amusing jokes for me to read. And here they come.
“A poodle and a collie are walking down the street…” before I can even finish, the screen zips past and the next joke comes up.
“An extensive government study has revealed that the leading cause of cancer in laboratory rats…” again, the screen reloads and the next jokes comes up.
“A Canadian psychologist is selling a video that teaches you how to test your dog’s IQ…” again, the screen flashes by before I can even finish half of the joke that was presented.
At this point I realized what was happening. I had 3 minutes to look through these various jokes that I “earned”. Because I paid for 21 of them, I was getting 7 per minute. That means I had less than 10 seconds available to read through each joke, which was not enough to read through even half of their content, and effectively made it impossible to enjoy them.
The better strategy would have been for me to look at much more of the enjoyable kitten pictures, and to end up with just enough points to buy a much fewer number of jokes that I can leisurely read through and truly enjoy. Had I done this, I would’ve been happier with both the picture viewing task and the 3 minute period with the jokes at the end of the experiment. Sadly, all the sacrifice and suffering I endured viewing the various sewer rat pictures provided no benefits to me.
This was a very silly experiment that took less than 10 minutes of my life to complete, and it gave me a good laugh. I can’t help but relate this experiment to my prior life experience in a high paying, but stressful job, though. I worked very hard and was very miserable back then, but I earned lots of money. Because I had no free time and was always mentally exhausted, I didn’t spend the money in any meaningful way. They provided me with little joy. Thankfully I got out of that situation.
Looking around further I can easily see that many people in society are still living in similar ways. We’ve been conditioned since an early age to believe that sacrifice is always good, that any sort of sacrifice for more rewards/points/money is always a good deal to engage in and we should undertake said sacrifice immediately without question. More importantly, we’ve rarely been taught to plan ahead and strategize our lives in such a way that we sacrifice a little, and get just enough to be happy and content through out its entirety.
It’s as if the means, which are the monetary rewards of our sacrifices, have replaced the actual end result of happiness and fulfillment as the thing to strive for in life for many of us.
Wasting 10 minutes looking through rat pictures is comical. Wasting an entire life time in miserable work is tragic.