“All human evil comes from a single cause, man's inability to sit still in a room“ said Blaise Pascal. “Don’t just do something. Stand there” said Clint Eastwood.
Both great men saw an important truth - that people have a huge urge to to things, regardless of reason or effect. A lovely new paper (pdf) by Christopher Hsee discusses just this.
He got some students to fill in a questionnaire and then drop it into a box, in return for which they’d get some chocolate. One box was right outside the door, the other was 15 minutes walk away: the students were also told they’d be needed to fill in another questionnaire 15 minutes later, so they weren’t free to just leave.
When told that the same chocolate was available in both locations, 32% chose the 15 minutes walk. They just fancied stretching their legs. However, when told that the chocolate was different in both places, 59% chose the walk. They said this was because they preferred the chocolate that was further away - even though a survey of them showed that the chocolate was equally attractive in both places.
What's more, those who walked said afterwards that they were much happier than those who sat still. This was also true in a separate experiment, when some students were told to walk, and others not to.
People choose to be idle if they do not have reason to be busy, but…even a specious justification can prompt them to seek busyness. In addition, people are happier when busy than when idle, even if busyness is forced upon them.
This, surely, explains a lot, for example:
1. Equity investors trade a lot, even though doing so loses money.
2. The unemployed are significantly unhappier than the employed, even controlling for incomes.
3. Bosses are forever finding themselves something to do, even though good organizations run themselves: this is one of the differences between managerialism and management.
4. Politicians - at least “progressive” ones - do more than they should, with limited success.
5. There’s widespread public hostility to the “workshy”, even though these are only a tiny minority of the unemployed, and even though it’s a good thing in utilitarian terms that some people don’t want to work.
These facts become explicable once we realize that people think that busyness is a good thing in itself, regardless of its effects.