Protestant Work Ethic

The notion of the Protestant work ethic has its roots in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he espoused the idea that the success of capitalism and economic growth throughout Western Europe and North America was partly the consequence of Puritanical values such as a calling to one’s work and frugality with one’s resources. Today, psychologists use the term Protestant work ethic (PWE) to refer to the extent to which individuals place work at the center of their existences, abhor idleness, and value accomplishment. Although there are several measures of the PWE, the most commonly used measure asks respondents the extent to which they agree or disagree (typically using a 1-7 response range) with statements such as the following: “The credit card is a ticket to careless spending,” “Most people who do not succeed in life are just plain lazy,” and “Our society would have fewer problems if people had less leisure time.”

The psychological study of the PWE has centered on two primary questions:

  1. What are the antecedents of PWE endorsement?
  2. What are the consequences of PWE endorsement?

Research has tended to focus more on the second of these two questions, the one more likely to be of interest to an industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologist. But before examining the consequences of PWE endorsement, we briefly examine its antecedents.

Antecedents of Protestant Work Ethic Endorsement

Endorsement of the PWE is related to a general conservative ideology. Indeed, one consistent research finding is that PWE endorsement in the United States is positively correlated with extent of identification with the Republican Party. In addition, PWE endorsement is related to values such as accomplishment, salvation, obedience, and self-control. However, PWE endorsement is distinct from other forms of conservatism. For example, social dominance orientation is the belief in a societal hierarchy of groups based on some group-level characteristic such as ethnic background. Right-wing authoritarianism consists of displaying high degrees of deference to established authority, acting aggressively toward societal out-groups when authorities permit such aggression, and supporting traditional values when authorities endorse those values. The PWE is related more to the notions of ambition, delay of gratification, and equitable distribution of rewards. Thus although PWE endorsement has its roots in conservative ideology, it is distinct from general conservative orientation and other forms of conservatism.

Consequences of Protestant Work Ethic Endorsement

It has been reported that hiring managers placed more emphasis on a potential employee’s attitude toward work than aptitude for work, and that job interviews are in part intended to gain a sense of a candidate’s attitude toward work. In another survey more than half of those managers queried believed that people’s attitudes toward their work were more important than even native intelligence! Thus a number of studies have investigated the relationship between PWE endorsement (as a proxy for work attitudes) and work-related variables. In large part, these studies tend to buttress the importance of one’s attitude toward work. For example, several studies indicate that PWE endorsement is positively correlated with work motivation, job-growth satisfaction, job involvement, organizational commitment, organizational citizenship behaviors, persistence in a task, and conscientiousness.

In addition to beneficial work-related outcomes, several studies have indicated that PWE endorsement is positively related to psychological well-being across different operationalizations of psychological well-being. However, two cautions of this replicated result are warranted. First, it is less clear if this finding is applicable to individuals is non-Western cultures. Second and related, there is minimal evidence for why PWE endorsement is positively correlated with psychological health. It may be that because hard work is a traditional Western and certainly American value, adhering to the pervasive cultural norm is the third variable responsible for this finding. Evidence for this contention comes from one study in which it was found that among overweight women, PWE endorsement was predictive of lower levels of psychological health, presumably because being overweight carries with it a stigma of being lazy. Thus although PWE endorsement has been found to be predictive of greater psychological health, there appear to be certain boundaries on this result. Employees who endorse the PWE, but are not performing up to their own or their supervisor’s standards, may be at risk for reduced levels of psychological well-being.

It is also important to note that PWE endorsement also appears to be related to prejudice against groups of people who violate the core value of PWE endorsement, that is, hard work. Indeed, if an employee who strongly endorses the PWE is working with fellow employees who are not pulling their weight, we might expect major impediments in such professional relationships. Likewise, for supervisors with strong PWE orientations, it might be particularly irksome to perceive that some employees are not offering their best efforts in the workplace. Even if the work itself is at least satisfactory, PWE-oriented supervisors may be biased against such employees in terms of performance appraisals and the distributions of other rewards.

What do we need to know about Protestant Work Ethic endorsement?

Much like the constructs of intelligence and extraversion, there is wide interindividual variation in PWE endorsement. Interestingly, research strongly suggests physiological differences in why some individuals are more intelligent or more extraverted than others. Might there be a physiological disposition for PWE endorsement? The answer to this question might foster research on the PWE from investigators in a variety of disciplines.

Most of this entry is based on research that has tended to treat the PWE as a unifaceted construct. However, as several researchers have demonstrated, existing measures of the PWE construct are in fact multifaceted, much as Max Weber himself conceived of the PWE. In an extensive analysis of the seven existing PWE scales, Adrian Furnham found that they tended to operationalize five different facets of the PWE. Specifically, they tapped into the importance of hard work in one’s life, antileisure attitudes, religion and morality, independence from others, and asceticism. Research within personality psychology has found utility in examining smaller, more precise facets of personality as opposed to larger, more general facets of personality. Future research in the PWE arena might benefit from similarly addressing how different facets of PWE endorsement are differentially predictive of the outcomes summarized in this chapter. A relatively new measure of different PWE facets might greatly facilitate such investigations.

References:

  1. Christopher, A. N., & Mull, M. S. (2005). Conservative ideology and ambivalent sexism. Manuscript submitted for publication.
  2. Feather, N. T. (1984). Protestant ethic, conservatism, and values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 1132-1141.
  3. Furnham, A. (1990). A content, correlational, and factor analytic study of seven questionnaire measures of the Protestant work ethic. Human Relations, 43, 383-399.
  4. Miller, M. J., Woehr, D. J., & Hudspeth, N. (2002). The meaning and measurement of work ethic: Construction and initial validation of a multidimensional inventory. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 60, 451-489.
  5. Quinn, D. M., & Crocker, J. (1999). When ideology hurts: Effects of belief in the Protestant work ethic and feeling overweight on the psychological well-being of women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 402-414.

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