Fighting Mindless Accumulation

In some research for the Canadian Bible Society’s upcoming social justice initiative (which I’ve written lots for on this site), I came across an interesting article in the New York Times about mindless accumulation.

The Research and Conclusions

Participants were split into brackets of high-earners and low-earners. They had to sit and listen to white noise for a set amount of time to earn chocolate, but only had 5 minutes to eat however much chocolate they had earned. Before beginning, people were asked how much they thought they could eat in 5 minutes and then they were left to earn as much or as little as they wanted.

The average high-earner predicted they could eat 3.75 chocolates in 5 minutes. They then suffered through enough white noise to earn 10.74, so almost 3 times what they thought they could eat. Their predictions were a little low on average of what they could actually eat, but they still couldn’t eat even half of what they earned.

The low-earners, meanwhile, were not able to earn as much as they thought they could eat, so that becomes a moot point. It is interesting, however, that they stayed through approximately the same amount of white noise. This suggests that the real factor isn’t working enough to earn the optimal reward – it’s simply working as much as we can handle, even when it doesn’t pay off.

The researchers named this “mindless accumulation.” We just can’t stop. We’ve trained ourselves to keep making our lives more stressful even when we fully know that it isn’t worth it.

For those low-earners, working to your maximum makes a lot of sense. Extrapolating this to the real world, many Canadians do need to work a 35 hour or more work week to meet even modest life goals like paying your rent and feeding your children quality food. I get that and obviously don’t blame them in the slightest.

We’ve managed to reduce our (physical) bookshelf to this. Still plenty I’ve never read.

I’m talking to the people who have more than you can consume. In some ways, I’m talking to myself. I used to be really bad with books. Over my 6 years of university, I probably bought 300 books including textbooks and read 100 of them. Some are still on shelves hoping I’ll get to them one day, but most I’ve given away to make room in one of my many moves since then. You’d think at some point I could just rationally say: “I only read about 1 book a month on average. And some of those are available in public [or school at the time] libraries. Therefore I shouldn’t buy at a pace of more than 1 book a month.” But it took me forever to figure this out, if I ever really did. I still buy more than I need, although less drastically. I’ve had similar trouble with movies – yes, we own movies that neither of us have ever watched, I think all of them being my purchase.

Now, something completely different again would be working to excess in order to give more away to people like those low-earners or no-earners struggling to hit the minimum requirements for life. I’m also not complaining about doing that as long as you’re still being careful about maintaining your relationships.


There’s an obvious parallel with Jesus’ words:

13 A man in a crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my share of what our father left us when he died.”

14 Jesus answered, “Who gave me the right to settle arguments between you and your brother?”

15 Then he said to the crowd, “Don’t be greedy! Owning a lot of things won’t make your life safe.”

16 So Jesus told them this story:

A rich man’s farm produced a big crop, 17 and he said to himself, “What can I do? I don’t have a place large enough to store everything.”

18 Later, he said, “Now I know what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I can store all my grain and other goods. 19 Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have stored up enough good things to last for years to come. Live it up! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’”

20 But God said to him, “You fool! Tonight you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?”

21 “This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves, but are poor in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:13-21 CEV)

Or how about this line:

19 Don’t store up treasures on earth! Moths and rust can destroy them, and thieves can break in and steal them. 20 Instead, store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy them, and thieves cannot break in and steal them. 21 Your heart will always be where your treasure is. (Matt 6:19-21 CEV)

Yes, some things are very different today. It’s easy to leave most possessions in a will so loved ones have them. Many accumulate in the name of those who will inherit it from them. But even that I don’t think is nearly as noble as we make it sound, mainly because when you’re working to your limits to accumulate for them, you generally don’t have much time left to actually spend with them.

Relaxing on the Beach

A few years ago a representative from Mennonite Foundation of Canada was speaking at the church I was attending for that summer. He told a parable that I’ll conclude by paraphrasing here:

A fisherman was relaxing on the beach in the afternoon when a businessman walked by. The businessman was upset that he would be slacking off, so asked the fisherman why he wasn’t working. The fisherman responded that he had already caught enough.

“But why don’t you catch more?” the businessman argued.

“Why would I do that?”

“Well, you could sell the extra and use the money to buy more boats and hire more staff. And then keep using that profit to get more boats and more staff!”

“And then what would I do?”

“Well then you can sell it all and sit back on the beach relaxing!”

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.