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Do People Favor Meaning Over Money in Their Jobs?

Are meaningful work and high-paying jobs incompatible?

Key points

  • People value high salaries and meaningful work but prefer money over meaning when forced to choose.
  • Preference for money over meaning is highest for undergraduate students and a bit lower for employed workers
  • This research has implications for the motivation of workers and employers

When surveyed and asked about the importance of high pay and meaningful work, a sample viewed both as desirable. But what happens if they are forced to choose between a higher-paying job with little meaning and a meaningful but low-paying job?

What is more important to you, money or meaningful work?

Recent studies (Ward, 2023) explored these two job elements–meaningful work and high pay. These studies used undergraduate students with little work experience and more experienced workers from the general population. Note that most of the participants were from the United States.

In the first study, the undergraduate students were randomly assigned to read about a high-salary ($75,000)/low-meaning job or a high-meaning/low-salary ($40,000) job and then rate their interest in the job. The students substantially preferred pay over meaning, and when asked to choose between the two, about 85 percent chose the high-pay/low-meaning job.

Do workers show the same pattern as students?

A second study focused on employed persons enrolled in a part-time MBA program. Instead of providing specific salaries, they were told that the more meaningful job would pay substantially less. Once again, money was preferred over meaningful work, but when forced to choose, only about 57 percent chose the higher-paying, low-meaning job over the reverse.

A third study looked at general workers. The workers were asked what salary they would expect from a job (and those expected salary values were related to what they were currently earning), with the high-meaning job paying about what was expected. The higher-paying, low-meaning job paid an additional $25,000 annually.

Here, the result differed a bit. Higher-paying, lower-meaning jobs were preferred for jobs where the participants expected lower salaries (less than $100,000 per year). But for those who expected salaries above $140,000 per year, they preferred meaning over money.

What might be the reason for preferring money over meaning in most jobs (except those who expect to receive very high salaries)? One possibility is that people associate money with well-being–having a substantial income means less worrying about finances and the ability to have a more comfortable lifestyle. Another factor to consider is individual differences. Some value money more (or less) than others, and some have a high need for meaningful work. The bottom line for workers and employers is keeping workers interested and engaged. Both pay levels and the amount of meaning in the job need to be provided.


Ward, S. (2023). Choosing money over meaningful work: Examining relative job preferences for high compensation versus meaningful work. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 01461672231159781.

Mitchell, T. R., & Mickel, A. E. (1999). The meaning of money: An individual-difference perspective. Academy of management review, 24(3), 568-578.

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