What People Value More: Autonomy vs. Prestige

A 2016 article from New York Magazine asks an interesting question about what people value more in a career – autonomy or prestige? Writer Melisa Dahl breaks down some interesting studies on the topic to get to the bottom of this question.

One study from the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin researchers from three universities and three different countries tested more than 2,000 subjects and found that while it is true that people who start to gain power or prestige in their career want more of it, ultimately autonomy “quenches the desire for power.” The study stated that ultimately people prefer careers in which they able to do what they want, how they want.

In one experiment researchers asked people to imagine that the already had a career with a lot of freedom, but had an opportunity to make a career move that would grant them a high degree of influence. One in which they were managing a team of subordinates. he other half were asked to imagine the scenario the other way around: What if they already were managing a bunch of people but were offered the chance to trade that for more freedom?

People overwhelming chose freedom. Of those who were told to imagine they already had autonomy, a little less than three-fourths turned down the career move with more power and prestige. In the other group, in which participants were told to imagine they held a position of prestige, but were being offered a job with more autonomy well over half – around 65% – took the career path with more freedom.

Dahl notes that previous research reveals that power and prestige appeals to people when they think it will lead to autonomy, but once they realized being in charge involved a lot of extra responsibility and expectations in regards to subordinates, their interest faded quickly.
Dahl ends by telling readers that the new research does not account for compensation. She writes:

“Maybe a substantial bump in pay would make a difference here, and people would indeed be more willing to give up some of their autonomy in exchange for some cold, hard cash. Or maybe not — or maybe they would but would later regret the decision. These are questions for future research. For now, the overall message of this paper feels very true: Maybe all anyone really wants at work is to be left the alone.”