Deadpan jobs are hard work

RICE (US) — Having a poker face at work can take its toll. Employees with jobs that require neutrality expend so much energy controlling emotions that they have less energy for other tasks.

“It takes energy to suppress emotions, so it’s not surprising that workers who must remain neutral are often more rundown or show greater levels of burnout,” says Daniel Beal, assistant professor of psychology at Rice University and study co-author.

That neutrality can be a turnoff for customers, the study shows. Customers who interacted with a neutrally expressive employee were in less-positive moods. Those customers gave lower ratings of service quality and held less-positive attitudes toward that employee’s organization.

The findings—scheduled for publication in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology—suggest that even though neutrality in such jobs is required for a number of reasons—to maintain trust, to keep a situation calm, to not influence the actions of others—it may not result in a particularly positive reaction from others.

“When an employee is positive, it transfers to the client or customer they’re working with,” Beal says. “Because of that good mood, the client or customer then would rate the organization better. But if an employee is maintaining a neutral demeanor, you don’t have those good feelings transferred. If an organization’s goal is to be unbiased, then that may trump any desire the organization has to be well-liked.”

Beal and researchers from the University of Toronto and Purdue University found employees will generally engage in higher levels of suppression in an attempt to adhere to the neutral display requirement to meet the expectations of their managers or the public.

For the study, the researchers trained participants to perform as poll workers in two different conditions. In one condition, the training emphasized being positive to provide a good impression of the organization sponsoring the survey. In the second condition, the training emphasized being neutral so as not to bias the responses of survey respondents.

Results supported the idea that neutral displays require greater emotion suppression and this greater suppression led to less persistence at the surveying task and greater avoidance of potential survey respondents.

While other research has focused on jobs that require the suppression of negative feelings, such as customer service representatives, this is the first such study to examine the jobs that require a neutral disposition and the consequences of suppressing both negative and positive emotions on the job.

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chat8 Comments


  1. WillWoodsIA

    Like many of the other deeply flawed Iowa State videogame studies that have come out in the past few years, the condition they are attempting to invent doesn’t compare favorably with children practicing to become tennis champions, or even elite quilters.

    “Dear god! Little Billy has stopped hanging out with his friends and is neglecting his grades for 31 hours a week of something called ‘ football tryouts’! This fMRI of subjects viewing goals being scored reveals a pleasure center activation consummate with severe pathological addiction, like crack! He says he prefers football to all other activities, and forming an identity outside of his traditional family role EVEN HAS HIM CHALLENGING HIS PARENTS! Clearly we must follow the Chinese model in this matter and administer immediate electro-shock, beatings, isolation, and pharmacological interventions… there may be a few fatalities but it is a small price to pay for enduring societal sanity.”

  2. A Philosopher

    Here’s how they could have saved a lot of time and money on this study: compare the number of sales position currently occupied by men, as opposed to women. Or in the unskilled labor world, look at the gender balance in piece-rate occupations. The former could be derived from census data, for free. I work in a piece-rate factory, and my employer’s corporate headquarters are mere blocks away from U Chi, it would have been easy to get numbers from them. To make the sales numbers more rigorous, you could compare the gender balance amongst those with similar education backgrounds, e.g. marketing degree holders, who are in marketing sales as opposed to other occupations within their industry.

    Regardless, these findings aren’t interesting. We already knew that men were more “competitive” than women, and we already knew that the nature/nurture of it was so entangled we couldn’t get it unknotted. My guess is that this wasn’t supposed to be a news-worthy study, but rather something they could cite in a lit. review when they did the real research.

  3. A Philosopher

    Wow, I just posted that comment on the wrong futurity article. Meant to post it on

  4. Roy Niles

    A factor not mentioned here could be the stated prospects for promotion as a further result of competition.
    Which factors in as well the expectations in the culture as to the the promotability of women over men in general.

  5. Roy Niles

    Hey, my comment went to the wrong article as well – wnat gives here?

  6. Roy Niles

    Hey, my comment went to the wrong article as well – what gives here?

  7. Futurity-Jenny Leonard

    Roy, apologies for the glitch. It’s fixed now. Keep the comments coming!

  8. WillWoodsIA

    Right, my comment belongs under the “videogame sickness” article for any confused readers

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