Getting People To Get Things Done – A New Psychological Trick

Subtly designing people’s choice environment in a way that they decide for a desired cause of action – so called “nudging” – receives growing interest as a potential tool for practical ethics. New psychological research suggests a surprisingly simple, but potentially powerful strategy to nudge people.

In an intriguing series of five experiments, published a few days ago online in the Journal of Consumer Research, Yanping Tu and Dilip Soman look at the impact of time categorisation on task initiation. They found that “people are more likely to initiate a task when the deadline is categorized in a like-the-present category than in an unlike-the-present category”. The simple trick behind this abstract wording can be best illustrated with help of the first experiment reported in the article. This field experiment involved farmers from rural India as participants. The authors offered all farmers a financial incentive – provided they opened a bank account and committed to saving a certain amount of money within 6 months. The farmers could either complete the paperwork for opening the account right away (with a bank representative who was present at the study), or do so later by going to their closest branch of the bank. Now, here is the trick: half of the farmers were approached in June, so their 6-months-deadline for opening the incentivised bank account was December of the same year (like-the-present category). The other half was approached in July, with their 6-months-deadline being January the year after (unlike-the-present category). Fascinatingly, ~ 32% of farmers whose deadline was in the same year opened a bank account right away, whereas only ~ 8% of the “the deadline is next year”-farmers did. Also, amongst the farmers who eventually opened the bank account, significantly more had been in the like-the-present situation than in in unlike-the-present situation.

The authors replicated this finding in further experiments involving different groups of participants and different time categorisation cues. They showed, for example, that Canadian undergraduate students were more willing to immediately start working on a job they had to complete within 5 days when their deadline was within the same month (e.g., April 24th – April 29th) than when the deadline was in the following month (e.g., April 26th – May 1st).

Hence, this research shows that whether people do or don’t do something beneficial for themselves depends not only on the actual, but the psychological deadline to get started. We have some reason to believe in these results, not only because the authors replicate them in several experiments, but also use different groups of participants, beyond the often criticised “WEIRD” samples.

For those of you who are interested in the “why?” – that is in the psychological process underlying these results: the authors further showed that the effect is driven by the mind-set participants adopt. When events are psychologically categorised as like-the-present, this triggers an implemental mind-set, i.e. an information processing mode going along with action orientation, goal commitment and willingness to take choices. Previous research had shown that people tend to see remote events more in a “why to do?” manner, but events near in time in a “how to do?” manner (Construal Level Theory). The time categorisation cue seems to psychologically shift events in the future from one category (remote) to the other (near).

In sum, even though time elapses continuously, people think of it categorically. And this compelling new research shows that when a task’s deadline is perceived as being of the same category as the present, people will be more likely to start doing the task. Whether a deadline is perceived as of the same category or not can be influenced by framing. If we aim to nudge people into ethically desirable behaviour – provided we endorse this kind of libertarian paternalism – we might use these findings. For example, when it’s about getting people to attend medical check-ups, to adopt environment-friendly behaviour, or to donate to charities, why not setting the deadline for getting started at the same week day, within the same month or the same year? Surely, applied research needs to validate whether this does the trick also in the contexts suggested, but given the low costs and the potentially large benefits, I think this trick is worth a try.

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