In chapter 6 of “Predictably Irrational”, Dan Ariely discusses a problem every student is familiar with, procrastination. You have an essay to do yet here you are browsing through facebook, looking at pictures of strangers and comments from people you don’t like. You know you should study but you could watch one more youtube clip. Every night you promise that the next day you will work hard and study, yet you never get around to it. You promise that you will exercise and eat healthy but end up sitting on the couch all day eating pizza.
Ariely did an experiment to examine it. He gave his students the choice of when to set the deadline for their three assignments, with the one condition that once they choose a date, they must stick with it or face a penalty for late submission. Surely, the more time you have the better the essay will be, so a rational student would have an incentive to pick the last day and minimise the risk of late submission. Instead Ariely found that most students spread their deadlines out across the semester, showing that they are aware of their tendency to give in to procrastination. To further test it, he gave a second class rigid deadlines on the 4th, 8th and 12th week, while the third class were told they could submit any time before the end of the semester. When comparing the results, he found that the class with rigid deadlines did the best and the one with all deadlines at the end did the worst. The students who could pick their deadline were in the middle, showing that students procrastinate and restricting their freedom can give better results.
This is hardly news to any student. In fact odds are that most people who are reading this should be doing something else. Right now I’m typing this in a library where I don’t know the wi-fi password. I could easily get it, but then I know I would get distracted and this post will take all day. During the college year I use a program called Cold Turkey to help me study. What it does is block your favourite sites (Facebook, Twitter etc) for a period of time (all of which you choose). This is because I know that I will give into temptation and waste time, so I must block myself. If we were rational this wouldn’t be a problem, but we’re not. I choose to restrict my choice and force myself to study. So, no, freedom of choice isn’t always the best option.
The problem of procrastination affects more than just students. The best and cheapest kind of healthcare is preventative medicine and spotting illnesses before they get too big. This relies on regular check-ups and health exams, which everyone knows is good for them, but is a nuisance to go to, so people put it off far longer than they should. One possible solution would be mandatory check-ups which would be better for us but would offend the libertarians among us (what right does the state have to tell me what to do?) Ariely proposes a middle ground of self-imposed mandatory check-ups (take a moment to savour the irony). Perhaps people could give doctors a $100 deposit that they will only get back if they attend the check-up? It sounds drastic but people often need to control themselves to avoid procrastination that they will later regret.
Another way to fight procrastination is to make things really easy. For example Ford motor company once noticed that they were having difficulty getting people to repair their cars. As every car contains thousands of parts, which are in turn different across all models, it was almost impossible for car owners to keep track of when each part was due a service. They noticed that Honda had an imaginative system where although their cars were just as complicated as Fords’, they had simplified the service to a simple schedule. A service could be performed after 5,000 miles or six months or after 10,000 or a year etc. This way it was simple and easy for car owners to keep track of when the next service was due and easy for them to calculate the price. Even though the different parts needed service at different times, people couldn’t keep track of it all so they put it on the long finger.
Another example is in America’s declining savings rate, caused primarily by credit card spending, a lot of which is on impulse. Now a libertarian would argue that if they want to overspend that’s their business and we have no right to tell them how to live their lives. But many people know they shouldn’t spend so much and need practice in self-control. One woman found herself deep in debt and was too ashamed to talk to her friends and family about it. So she set up a blog where she shared all her financial details to force herself to save more. This form of self-control through public opinion is also what addiction groups like Alcoholics Anonymous use.
Ariely proposes a self-control credit card resembling the deadlines he gave his students. Each week people would set themselves a limit of how they would spend and on what (example limiting the spending on coffee to $20 a week or $60 a month on entertainment). If they went over the limit there would be a fine in the form of a charity donation or an e-mail to a friend or family member explaining what the money was spent on. Ariely even had talks with a major bank over the possibility of introducing such a card, though they profit from credit card spending and have no incentive to decrease it.