The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Are Hourly Wage Workers Less Likely to be Volunteers

Salaries and Volunteering: Some Counter-Intuittive Evidence

Puzzle: Four people have a free hour on weekends. (A) One is a lawyer who bills clients at the rate of $295/hour. (B) The second is an accountant who bills clients at $100/hour. (C) The third is a schoolteacher who gets paid $45,000/year. (D) The fourth is a parking attendant who gets paid $10/hour. Knowing nothing else about these people, but assuming they have similar temperaments, who would you guess will be the most generous with their free weekend hour -- and donate it to volunteer work? Bonus points if you can also say why -- using a "hidden brain" explanation, of course!

Answer: C

The teacher, who gets paid an annual salary, is least likely to grudge the hour spent volunteering. I based this puzzle on some very interesting new research by Sanford E. DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer, who found that as new lawyers start to get accustomed to the practice of billing clients per hour, they become less willing to donate their time for volunteer work. The researchers experimentally tested the finding by varying the billing time of lawyers, and found that this experimental manipulation produced differences in people's willingness to volunteer their time. Lawyers who were less materialistic and did not care as much about money as their peers were less affected by this, suggesting that being paid for the hour encourages people to think about their time in pecuniary terms. The person who gets billed $100 an hour thinks of their volunteer time as more valuable than the person who bills $50 an hour.

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I've found examples of this phenomenon in everyday life, when I hear people fret about how time is money. Time certainly has value, but converting it into a metric of value becomes problematic in the many domains of life (volunteering included) where we are not delivering professional services. It's an example of how once we teach our hidden brains a certain rule -- in the case of the wealthy lawyer, "my time is worth $300/hour" -- then the hidden brain remembers that rule even in situations where the rule no longer applies (the lawyer is playing with his kids while looking at his watch, or cuts back his volunteering time to half an hour since he only wishes to make a donation of $150.)

I'd be the first to say this isn't the most cleanly constructed puzzle, because there are probably different answers that are at least as legitimate as the one I've suggested. The fact the four people in my example were all from different professions muddies the issue right off, as does the fact that some people likely have more leisure time than others that they can contribute to volunteer work.

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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