On Monday, Fleet Street Blues posted an argument that the NUJ should not be pursuing their current campaign against unpaid work experience for journalists. Regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong, something I read today shed some light on the whole affair for me. I’ve been reading a book by Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational: the hidden forces that shape our desires (thanks @lydnicholas for the loan). There’s a chapter called “The cost of social norms” in which he discusses what happens if you take a social relationship – courtship, for instance – and apply market forces. He sets up an experiment which studies how hard students will work at mindless tasks for researchers if they’re asked to do it for no money, 50 cents or $5. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the students who aren’t paid who work the hardest.
Those who got paid 50 cents didn’t say to themselves, ‘Good for me; I get to do this favor for these researchers, and I am getting some money out of this,’ and continue to work harder than those who were paid nothing. Instead they switched themselves over to the market norms, decided that 50 cents wasn’t much, and worked half-heartedly. In other words, when the market norms entered the lab, the social norms were pushed out.
A whole series of experiments follow, in which Arielly mixes social norms (gifts of chocolate, for instance) with market norms (cash rewards) as motivators and looks at the impact on the work people are willing to do. Money – even the mention of money – always sours the social norm. When the social contract is based on goodwill and barter that doesn’t mention a monetary value, people are willing to work for very little. The minute money is mentioned, people switch to using market norms, and suddenly discover that their reward for working is way under the market rate. So, with the NUJ campaign, the fight seems to be happening between those who see the work experience relationship as a social exchange, where inexperienced journalists gain experience, knowledge and bylines in exchange for their work, and those who see it as a market exchange where the journalist is not being fairly compensated. Just as, in the row over HuffPo bloggers not being paid in the aftermath of the $315m sale to AOL, people who were accustomed to seeing their work as part of a social exchange suddenly, at the mention of money, reframed it as a market exchange and decided they weren’t getting a fair market rate for their work. Suddenly, a lot of ongoing conversations about the value of free work make an awful lot more sense.