Panel Paper: Work Motivations, Public Service, and the End of History Illusion

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 8:00 AM
3017 Monroe (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Gregg Van Ryzin, Rutgers University
Psychology has shown that people are susceptible to cognitive illusions, systematic errors in reasoning and judgment that can distort important decisions in their lives.  A recent article in the journal Science, by Quoidbach, Gilbert, and Wilson (2013), provides evidence for what the authors term the ‘end of history illusion’, the tendency of people of all ages to predict little change in their personal future even though they report a great deal of change in their past.  Their study specifically examined personality traits, personal values, and musical preferences.  But could the end of history illusion apply also to work motivations?  In particular, do people entering public service make good predictions about what will matter to them later in their work lives? 

To examine these questions, a sample of 220 public service professionals of various ages recruited online was asked about their current work motivations and then randomly assigned to two groups: ‘reporters’, who were asked to report their work motivations 10 years ago; and ‘predictors’, who were asked to predict their work motivations 10 years from now.  Regressions were then estimated to compare the predicted change in work motivation of those X years of age with the reported change of those X+10 years of age.  The regressions analyzed both absolute change in the sum of all work motivations as well directional change in specific motivations (such as income, job security, opportunities for advancement, being able to work independently, helping others, and being useful to society).

Consistent with the end of history illusion, results show that public service professionals consistently predict much less change in their work motivations over time than they report experiencing in their actual work histories.  In particular, they underestimate the importance of helping others through their work and especially underestimate the importance of being able to work independently. And they overestimate the importance of income.  These results have implications for research on work motivations in the public and nonprofit sectors, as they suggest that people entering public service may have systematic biases when making decisions that depend on anticipating what motivations will matter to them over the course of their professional careers.


Quoidbach, J., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2013). The End of History Illusion. Science, 339(6115), 96–98