Easy Job Fix?

I’ve been slowly working my way through Triver’s book Folly of Fools. Chapter six reviews the many amazing benefits that appear to arise from having people write about their troubles. For example:

Writing about job loss improves one’s chance of reemployment. This sort of writing appears to be cathartic – people immediately feel better. More striking, at least in one study, is a sharply increased chance of getting a job. After six months, 53 percent of writers had found a new job, compared with only 18 percent of non writers. One effect of writing is that it helps you work through your anger so it is not displaced onto a new, prospective employer or, indeed, revealed to the employer in any form.

Here is the cited ’94 study:

Subjects in the study were 63 professionals (62 men, 1 woman), with a mean age of 54 years (representing of range of 40 to 68 years) and an average tenure of 20 years with their former employer, a large computer and electronics firm. Subjects had held engineering or other professional positions with the company. They were voluntarily recruited to the Writing in Transition Project from … an outplacement firm, following a large-scale layoff from their company. At the time of the study the length of unemployment was five months for all subjects. All [100] potential subjects were informed that the project involved a writing process that was expected to benefit them in their search process. Forty-one of [them] volunteered for the study and were randomly assigned to either the experimental writing (N = 20) or the control writing (N = 21) conditions. …

[We saw] a significant difference (… p = .018) between those who got jobs and those who did not. … The effects were not mediated by measures of heightened motivation. That is, subjects in the experimental condition did not receive more phone calls, make more contacts, or send out more letters than controls. … Most subjects had very powerful emotions about their termination experience. (more)

This suggests an easy way to increase employment, at least if the problem is employee attitudes. Digging more, I found this ’01 review, which seems to confirm the benefits of writing therapy. It all does seem a bit hard to believe, but stranger things have been true.

Added 31Dec: jsalvatier finds a good ’06 meta analysis:

One hundred forty-six randomized studies of experimental disclosure were collected and included in the present meta-analysis. Results of random effects analyses indicate that experimental disclosure is effective.

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  • Even if writing about job loss is good for individuals, I doubt it will increase employment in the population as a whole. Presumably, employers decide how many people to hire based on their needs, current cost of labor, etc.

    If one person shows up to an interview happier, that one person might be more likely to get the job, but it’s not clear that a bunch of happy interviewees will inspire the employer to hire more of them.

    • Michael Wengler

      Darn skippy. Building a website brings an insurance company more business. This does not lead to more insurance sold overall once every insurance company has a website.

      Warren Buffett puts it this way. Once a few people stand on their tiptoes to see a parade, EVERYONE has to stand on their tiptoes to get an equivalent view of what they used to see without having to stand on their tiptoes.

      • Similarly, the higher salaries of college grads don’t tell us how much median income would increase if more people graduated from college. Some of the higher salary is due to being more productive, presumably, but some is just being more competitive for a limited number of high-paying jobs — an educational version of everyone standing on tiptoe.

  • People spending less time unemployed (and spending less money) should benefit everyone, no?

  • Steven


    That depends on the mechanism by which the writing affects reemployment. If it reduces the wage/benefits required by the job seeker, it could raise aggregate employment. If it just gives the job seeker an advantage over the competition, then your point is correct.

  • those results are pretty old and I’d like to know more about what exactly made the writers more likely to be employed; did the writing simply induce them to be less picky about salaries etc.? (Can’t see much of the study.)

  • Rob

    Timothy Wilson covers various and surprisingly effective applications of writing exercises in his recent book REDIRECT: http://tinyurl.com/74lr9pj

  • David

    They were chosen voluntarily. Mightn’t it just be that people who chose not to try the writing thing were less likely to try in general?

    • Wonks Anonymous

      “Forty-one of [them] volunteered for the study and were randomly assigned to either the experimental writing (N = 20) or the control writing (N = 21) conditions”
      It was a randomized control study.

      • David

        Ah, good.

  • “I’ve been slowly working my way through Triver’s book Folly of Fools.”

    Did you once say you were a fast reader? The book is written in a popular style and isn’t hard. (But it isn’t particularly well-written and looks to me that it was done in a rush.)

    “This suggests an easy way to increase employment, at least if the problem is employee cooperativeness and willingness to accept new jobs.”

    That’s an infinitely big if. (Should be “at least if the problem *were*…”)

  • ravi

    Even better than writing is to actually speak to a good active listener. When I mean an active listener, it is someone that will not jump right away with suggestions and judgements ..they might sometime mirror your facial emotions (all unconsciously) .. the listener must empathize, not analyze or sympathize .. its a fine line.

    The problem most often is that either anger, fear or greed often short circuits your thinking.. when you face an active listener .. it helps to activate thinking back up again .. really people are amazing creatures and most of life’s worries are best solved through face to face with true friends ..

    Writing is a lengthy way of doing the same thing and less effective at that because you will still miss the biases .. remember most of your problems haven’t even been reduced to language based thought ..

  • ravi

    I am hypothesizing that when people mirror your emotions and you are speaking out your thoughts you have at once a complete picture of what you are thinking and feeling .. and you can easily correct yourself .. Writing, meditation and all other stuff is not the best tool for solving life’s most basic problems.

    from where I come from, on a daily basis, you interact with people of all ages and genders withing your circle .. each with their own separate set of strengths and weaknesses .. but when combined, their insight is often invaluable.

    It is just that our cognitive apparatus is not well equipped to work by itself.

  • Preferred Anonymous

    Fundamental issues cannot be solved by therapy (writing is presented as therapy here).

    Therapy solves issues in perception/behaviour, it does not rewrite the basic laws of the universe.

    Jobs are tied to politics which is tied to the economy which is tied to energy which is tied to technology and population. Neither technology or population are perception/behaviour-driven mechanisms.

  • sk

    I wonder if the results would be the same if those folks were invited/volunteered to say paint, or sculpt, or do public speaking, or teach someone something. I wonder how the percentages of unemployed people finding new jobs after they engage in writing vs doing any of the other things above look like .

  • Pingback: Assorted links — Marginal Revolution()

  • mobile

    Disclaimer: writing about your job loss on your Facebook page is probably not as helpful.

  • Hawthorne Effect

    • John Faben

      Forty-one of [them] volunteered for the study and were randomly assigned to either the experimental writing (N = 20) or the control writing (N = 21) conditions.

      Why would the control group not be affected by the Hawthorne effect?

      Admittedly, this is still a pretty small sample size, and not a huge p-value, so I’d like to see some replication before reading too much into the study. On the other hand, the writing exercise does not seem too high cost, so if I find myself unemployed, I think I’ll probably try it…

  • jsalvatier

    That review did not inspire confidence at all. I read about half of it before giving up and they didn’t mention any specific randomized controlled trials of writing therapy in that time.

  • jsalvatier

    This meta-analysis is looking a lot more promising: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/bul/132/6/823/