Get it over with, or procrastinate? New research explores our decision-making process

June 02, 2020

When it's time to schedule a vacation, most people will do it right away. But when it comes to booking a root canal, some people will procrastinate while others will put it at the top of their to-do list.

New research from the UBC Sauder School of Business may have figured out why. The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, reveals key insights into how excitement, anticipation and dread factor into people's decision-making.

"This stems from the phenomenon known as 'the sign effect'," says the study's author and UBC Sauder assistant professor, David Hardisty. "A person's desire to get positive things right away is stronger than their desire to put off negative ones. However, the timing of when a person wants to handle negative things is less obvious."

Hardisty and his team found that when people look toward positive events in the future, such as an upcoming vacation, they experience pleasure, but also impatience, which makes for a mixed emotional experience.

When it comes to upcoming losses, however, the emotion tends to be all bad -- even if that root canal is far away and life at this moment is good. So rather than postpone those negative events, many prefer to get them out of the way as soon as possible.

"When you're booking a vacation, you're vicariously enjoying the vacation, which is great, but you're also contrasting it with your current situation, which is bad. So you have that mix," says Hardisty. "And for losses, it's more of a unidimensional bad feeling. When you have a dentist's appointment coming up, you don't like thinking about the pain in the dental chair."

In one experiment, the researchers posted two advertisements on Facebook for retirement planning: one ad read "Looking forward to retirement benefits?", and the other read "Worried about retirement expenses?" The click-through rate for this second ad, focused on reducing worry, was 43 per cent higher.

In a second experiment, to create controlled positive and negative experiences, the researchers used jelly beans which come in flavours ranging from orange sherbet and watermelon to dirt and rotten egg. Participants were given the jelly beans to eat at different times, and rated how they felt about their upcoming gains -- the good-tasting jelly beans -- and losses (the bad ones).

Hardisty says some people procrastinate and put off negative events, but not as much as many would expect, because the negative anticipation is so unpleasant. The researchers' findings also counter earlier research that argued people put off positive events so they can savour the sweet anticipation.

In a separate but related study, Hardisty's team looked at how people feel about past events, both positive and negative, because it removes the effects of anticipation. In other words, how do people feel about that root canal they had a month ago, or that relaxing vacation?

They found that remembering bad events feels bad, and remembering good events feels good, effectively wiping out the sign effect.

The more events recede into the past, adds Hardisty, the more muted our emotional responses to them become.

While the research provides a fascinating look at human behaviour, Hardisty says it also has plenty of practical applications when it comes to everything from contemplating car loans to mapping out retirement plans.

"It's exciting to have an explanation for why people make choices the way we do," he says. "Hopefully it will lead to better interventions that can help people make better long-term choices about their finances and other life events."
Impatience and Savoring vs. Dread: Asymmetries in Anticipation Explain Consumer Time Preferences for Positive vs. Negative Events is authored by David Hardisty and Elke U. Weber of Princeton University, and is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

The Sign Effect in Past and Future Discounting is authored by David Hardisty, Sarah Molouki of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and Eugene M. Caruso of the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. It is published in Psychological Science.

University of British Columbia

Related Retirement Articles from Brightsurf:

Tendency to select targeted retirement fund ending in zero may impact wealth
New research shows that selecting a targeted retirement fund that ends in a zero could negatively impact your retirement savings.

New study explores fiscal issues related to NYC teachers retirement system
With city contributions totaling $37 billion in 2018, or 6 percent of tax revenue, TRS has two important characteristics that distinguish it from most other public pension plans in the nation.

Not finding new goals post-retirement associated with greater cognitive decline
Certain middle-aged and older adults, especially women who tend to disengage from difficult tasks and goals after they retire, may be at greater risk of cognitive decline as they age, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

Advisers not enough to guarantee a strong retirement
Rui Yao, a nationally recognized expert on retirement savings from the University of Missouri, suggests that employees can't trust that the retirement plan sponsored by their employer is in good hands just because the plan uses an adviser.

Working women healthier even after retirement age
Study shows that women who worked consistently during their prime midlife working years had better physical health than non-working women later in life.

Personality traits affect retirement spending
How quickly you spend your savings in retirement may have as much or more to do with your personality than whether you have a lot of debt or want to leave an inheritance.

Paid sick leave and flextime benefits result in significantly more retirement savings
Researchers found that workers with flexible work time enjoyed a 24.8 percent increase in retirement savings compared to those without the benefit; workers with paid sick leave had retirement savings 29.6 percent higher than those workers who lacked paid sick leave benefits; and workers with six to 10 paid sick leave days and workers with more than 10 paid sick leave days annually had a statistically and significantly higher amount in their retirement savings (30.1 percent and 40.7 percent, respectively).

Research shows that early retirement can accelerate cognitive decline
Early retirement can accelerate cognitive decline among the elderly, according to research conducted by faculty at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Over-55s shouldn't wait for retirement to make time for their health
People in middle-age need to keep up their physical activity levels if they are to enjoy a fit and healthy retirement -- according to a new report.

Sedentary time increases after retirement -- especially in women
The FIREA study, conducted at the University of Turku (Finland), revealed that the amount of sitting time increased in women after the transition to retirement.

Read More: Retirement News and Retirement Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to