Resource Scarcity, Effort, and Performance in Physically Demanding Jobs: An Evolutionary Explanation

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Based on evolutionary theory, we predicted that cues of resource scarcity in the environment (e.g., news of droughts or food shortages) lead people to reduce their effort and performance in physically demanding work. We tested this prediction in a 2-wave field survey among employees and replicated it experimentally in the lab. In Study 1, employees who perceived resources in the environment to be scarce reported exerting less effort when their jobs involved much (but not little) physical work. In Study 2, participants who read that resources in the environment were scarce performed worse on a task demanding more (carrying books) but not less (transcribing book titles) physical work. This result was found even though better performance increased participants’ chances of additional remuneration, and even though scarcity cues did not affect individuals’ actual ability to meet their energy needs. We discuss implications for managing effort and performance, and the potential of evolutionary psychology to explain core organizational phenomena.

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