A behaviouralist (re)learns some lessons
The thin veneer of a little specialist knowledge does not stop an observer of human behaviour exhibiting pretty much the same patterns of behaviour as everyone else. In fact, it can be most enlightening to reflect on one’s own behaviour. Gather round, and listen to my story.
For the last two years, I have been the co-instructor of an online course at an American university. Each term, students need to produce four written assignments, together representing more than half the marks for the entire course. Even though the grading rubric is known to them, some of the papers submitted suggest that not all of the students seem to understand quite how they should interpret it.
It always starts with a good intention
When, last term, one of the students delivered an outstanding final paper, my colleague and I thought we might use it as a kind of exemplar for the students. However, simply making the paper available didn’t seem the best way forward, as we suspected they might just try to copy its style (if not its content). Instead, I proposed to make a video in which we would show snippets of the paper to illustrate what the grading rubric called for. So far so good — this was in May of this year, and the next course would not start until October.
So, plenty of time for some procrastination. Now, few people routinely deliver a piece of work well before the due date, and your correspondent is not one of them. But why do we procrastinate when we have long deadlines? Research by a team led by Johns Hopkins University professor of marketing Meng Zhu suggests that distant goals make people infer that they are more difficult to achieve — even if the deadline is unrelated to the task itself (as was the case here). This phenomenon, which they called the ‘mere deadline effect’, directly leads to procrastination (and indeed quitting — thank goodness that didn’t happen to me). In in another study, the same author, with different colleagues, also identified the so-called ‘mere urgency’ effect, a basic and widespread psychological preference to complete less important, but more urgent tasks and procrastinate on the more important ones. Yes, that was definitely me. I procrastinated and procrastinated until this task too had become urgent.
Evidently, I didn’t just want to produce a boring video. Without going over the top, I wanted to put some effort in it and make it look appealing. I have made a few similar short videos before, so I was confident I’d be able to produce about 10 minutes’ worth in maybe half a day tops — that’s what I was pretty sure it had taken the last time. I could remember what the editing app was capable of, so I was convinced I also remembered how to line up clips of on-camera speech with screenshots, and whatever effects would make it look slick.
Tales of the unexpected
With just under a week to go, a bit later than I had originally envisaged, but still plenty of time before the start of the course, the script was ready and agreed it with my colleague, and I was ready to roll. It started well: in about two hours, I recorded my 10 minutes’ worth of talk, including retakes of parts spoiled by the sirens of passing ambulances and verbal slip-ups. Pretty pleased, I took a break for lunch. All I now needed to do was simply assemble the various clips into a coherent whole interspersed with the relevant parts of the paper, add some strategic captions, and polish the whole thing up, and Bob would be my uncle very soon.
Except, after I had been assembling the various clips etc. for most of the afternoon, all of a sudden, the video editor ran out of memory and crashed. No worries, I thought, surely it would have regularly saved my progress, like every program does these days, no? No? No. Overconfidence is not just something related to one’s own abilities, I realized: it can also apply to one’s tools. And I remembered that a fundamental component of the planning fallacy, in which only the best case scenario is considered, is the failure to plan for the unexpected.
At that moment, I was confronted with two other well-known behavioural science concepts. One was the sunk cost fallacy, which describes how we tend to choose to continue a task simply because we have already invested a lot of time, money or effort in it so far. This is a fallacy, because all that investment is ‘sunk’ in the past. It cannot be recovered, and makes no difference with respect to the future: what matters is how much time, money or effort is needed from hereon in to finish the task, and how worthwhile is doing so.
Familiar as I am with this fallacy, like a true professional, I totally ignored all the work I had already put in so far, and started seriously questioned whether the end product really would justify the weekend work (which is the standard solution to the planning fallacy) that would be necessary to finish it in time. Yet, there was the second concept: the commitment device, the trick that makes us stick to our intentions. I had promised my colleague I would make that video. And, sunk cost fallacy or not, I would bloody well finish it, or perish trying.
Satisficing to the rescue
It was Saturday morning by now, just two days before the start of the course. I had limited time available — very limited time, we may well say — and yet, I was determined to do the best I could. Time to recall one of the oldest concepts in modern behavioural science, coined by polymath Herbert Simon: satisficing — a portmanteau term constructed from the verbs to satisfy and to suffice. It refers to the pursuit of a strategy that delivers a result that is good enough, favouring efficiency over the achievement of the optimum result. Given my strict time constraint, I would need to satisfice like I had never satisficed before.
There is something strange about the concept of satisficing. It is supposedly a good thing, but it casts a shadow of slacking, of doing the bare minimum and not a bit more — like a student aiming for a pass rather than for an A grade. But that would be to misunderstand what satisficing really is.
Satisficing means being deliberate about the trade-off between the cost and the benefit, the essence of good decision-making. It means not ignoring the sacrifices that need to be made to deliver the result, and recognizing the opportunity cost involved. It means weighing up the true utility of the outcome against the effort required to produce it.
It does not mean being content with a subpar result. We are the judge of what is good enough, and like a student deciding that an A is good enough, and a pass isn’t, we can set the bar at whatever height we wish — and be accountable for it.
So, I decided what would be good enough and set about delivering it, in between all the regular and irregular weekend chores (which included pruning our apple tree). By midday Sunday I was done — or nearly: it still needed a proper title page. Yes, I was still satisficing, in case you are wondering, as I was looking for some suitable imagery, and an appropriate font for the titles.
I reflected on what I had learned and re-learned over the last few days. I had experienced that ambition and aspiration can provide powerful motivation, but inexperience and lack of practice are major obstacles to progress, and amplify the effects of optimism bias and overconfidence. I had seen how effective a commitment device (like making a promise to someone else) can be, even if it prevents you counteracting the sunk cost fallacy. And I realized how intrinsic motivation, the joy of turning your vision into reality is an even more powerful motivation than the initial ambition.
As I uploaded the video to the teaching platform, I thought about how I had decided what was good enough, and I concluded that, in the end, it seems I had pretty much been making the right decisions.
Just as well, for the subject of the course in question is none other than Decision Making.
Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on October 23, 2020.
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