Monday, June 16, 2008

License to Sin: The Liberating Role of Reporting Expectations

The paper I'm writing about here is a little old (June 2007), but it's a good start to what I expect will be a series reporting research on 'dumb people'. All will relate to the many, many ways in which psychologists of various kinds (and behavioural economists)
keep on finding ways in which people depart from optimal behaviour or show failures of rationality. (And I don't mean anything 'thick' by rationality - just consistency in pursuing any set of ends.)

This piece, by Fitzimmons and colleagues, is published in the Journal of Consumer Research, and is called License to Sin: The Liberating Role of Reporting Expectations. (It's also available here.)

The key findings are pretty simple: Asking people in advance about whether they think they are going to engage in some kind of "vice behaviour" makes it more likely that they will engage in the vice. A "vice behaviour" is defined by the authors as a behaviour about which subjects "simultaneously hold both negative explicit and positive explicit attitudes", and the sort of thing they have in mind is skipping class, watching TV instead of working, drinking more than you should. One part of the study successfully confirmed the mix of explicit negative and implicit positive associations to the vice behaviours, by comparing deliberate and response time tasks.

The study found that students asked (and asked once at the first class of a 16 week semester) how often they thought they would skip classes went on to skip classes more often than students who were not asked.

It also found that subjects who already thought of themselves as having a problem with self-control were more likely to exhibit increased vice behaviour following being asked about expected vice.

Finally, it was found that the effect of reporting expectations could be reduced if subjects "precommitted" to self-reward for avoiding the vice, or thought about actions they could take when faced with specific temptations. The "precommittment" simply involved describing a reward that the subject could give her or himself if they met their vice-restraining goal (this part of the experiment concerned drinking).

None of this 'should' make any difference. Answering a question about how often I expect to muck around blagging instead of grading papers or doing research doesn't give me any new information, and doesn't seem like the sort of thing that should change my preferences. And since talk is cheap, imagining that I could pay myself for not giving into temptations seems like no reason at all not to take the temptations and then take the reward anyway. But the results suggest that both of these sorts of things do make a difference.

One reason not to pay myself the reward when I didn't 'earn' it, is, of course, because my own credibility is worth something to me. Some of my total expected reward will depend partly on that credibility. I'd have been interested to see whether thinking about ways of dealing with temptation, or planning self-reward, worked the same, or better, or worse, for subjects who regarded themselves as having control problems, or who were more impulsive by some other measure.

I also figure that the next time I throw a party, I'll put a little quiz on the invitations, asking "Do you think you're likely to drink too much and dance on the tables?", "Do you think you're likely to get frisky with the host?" and so forth. It may be harder to work this into dating without the pre-date conversation seeming a little weird, but it looks like that could also be worth a try.


Michael Meadon said...

*supportive noises*

Note the "thethe" typo in the third to last paragraph...

You should blog about that 'stupid people don't know how stupid they are' paper... (I've been meaning to for a while).

Doctor Spurt said...

Thanks. And yeah, I'm thinking of adding that paper to the 'dumb people' category at some point.