Discordant Thinking

Here’s a classic social psychology experiment: recruit a bunch of college students and split them into two groups. Have them all spend a couple of hours doing some dull, repetitive task, but give the first group $50 each for their trouble, and the second group only $1. Then ask them to report how enjoyable the job was; the high-paid group will tend to rate it lower than those who received only a pittance.

This may seem paradoxical, but is easily explained. The contrast between the subjects’ image of themselves as smart, successful people and the menial task they have been assigned causes them to experience an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance; the first group can resolve this by reasoning that they’re doing it for the money, but the second group have to try to convince themselves that the job itself is intrinsically interesting, and that they’re not stupid for wasting their time with it.

I thought of this when I read the story of the businessman who dramatically cut his document-translation bill by getting SL residents to do it for L$50 (US$0.20) a go, rather than the going rate of US$50. (I learned of this via a tweet from Wallace Linden, who seems to think that it’s a great advert for the platform; “Do business in Second Life – our residents are morons who will work for buttons!”) I can’t imagine that the people who did the work really believe that their time is worth only 0.4% of their real-life equivalents, so they must be thinking that, because it’s happening in SL, it’s actually fun, and not work at all. (Of course they may be ripping the guy off by cutting and pasting his documents through Google translate, but even that would take a couple of minutes, so we’re still talking sub-minimum-wage labour).

It makes me wonder if a similar psychological process is behind my own enjoyment of Second Life. I spend a lot of time wandering around deserted landscapes looking at rather dull virtual architechture, and even more time reading (and commenting upon) the boring tittle-tattle that makes up the SL blogosphere. When I think about it, it does seem a bit pointless (which is probably why I keep it a secret from just about everyone I know.)

On the other hand, virtual worlds are the brightest stars in the technological heavens, aren’t they? They must be, or all us smart people wouldn’t be wasting our valuable time with them…

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