Unpaid work experience vs market norms

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.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

6 thoughts on “Unpaid work experience vs market norms”

  1. There’s another book I should lend you, Outliers, which looks at shared characteristics of successful individuals and groups.
    One point it raised was that children of educated parents (they were American, but the English would call them middle class) were encouraged in extra-curricular activities taught to ascribe great value to academic achievements. The kids would do better in school and believe that they earned it.
    Work experience is similar- it is very expensive to support yourself whilst working for free. So it’s easier for those with money or other kinds of support to do it, but they are still working and it is still hard so they still feel like they’re earned it.
    Another factor to consider is location- much easier to do media work experience if your family & friends are in London with places for you to stay for free.

    1. I’d love to read that. Sounds like it’d help inform and refine my current thinking about this issue (mostly, I don’t understand why anyone’s willing to work for free, or really how they can afford it, but I recognise that says more about my background and status than it is about accepted standards).

  2. Thank you Mary – that is very interesting – reminds me of the issue of what to give a volunteer as a leaving present when they have devoted say 20 years of their life to a social club.

    Rule 1 – never, ever give cash – unless you raise thousands, the person will instinctively see it as poor recompense for their years of hard work.

    Strangely enough people tend to ascribe more value to something as transitory as a bunch of cut flowers than they do to a voucher for the cash equivalent (particularly if someone takes a picture of them with the flowers and puts it in the social club’s newsletter – or, better still, gets it printed in the local newspaper).

    Equally people tend to prefer practical presents that relate to a hobby (such as a complete home brew kit) to commercial substitutes (such as a case of beer) – I always assumed that this was because it showed that the givers understood the receiver’s personal passions – but reflecting on your article I think it is because the receiver immediately sees a cash value in the commercial equivalent (and so judges it on its market value).

    1. Interesting point about practicality vs commerciality. I suspect another element – to use your example – might be that people value the experience of learning to brew and creating their own beer as almost an extra gift, so in a sense you’re giving them both the finished product and the creative experience – as well as the sense of achievement they get by having created something. Hm.

      Agree whole-heartedly with your rule 1, though. Any amount of money isn’t right, because it takes a social contract and transforms it into a market exchange, and value just doesn’t translate.

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