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Richard Thaler’s latest Economic View column.

As implausible as it may seem, here is a statement that almost everyone in Washington can agree with: Congress has self-control problems. This may just be a sign of democracy. We elect those who share our frailties. We Americans eat too much, take on too much debt, save too little and put off anything mildly unpleasant as long as possible. Psychologists and behavioral economists have studied these kinds of problems for decades. We know, for example, that children have trouble waiting even for a few minutes to get three marshmallows if they can have one now, and they find it particularly hard if they have to look at those luscious treats while waiting.

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If you’re a reader of the Nudge blog, you know all about Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test. (References to it are popping up in media everywhere these days.) Maybe you are curious how you might have done on the test if it had been you and one of his assistants at the Stanford lab decades ago. Would you have had the self-control to hold out for the second marshmallow?

If you watch many TV shows on Hulu, you might have already gotten a clue.

Hulu streams ads during its programs. It uses three advertising models, Standard, Premium, and something called Hulu Exclusive Format. When you watch shows under the third format you are presented with a choice before you start viewing. You are offered the option to watch a “long-form commercial” up front in exchange for a showing of your program without additional ads. Or, you can watch your program with “normal commercial breaks.” In other words, you can start watching sooner, or you can wait a bit and experience the pleasure of uninterrupted viewing.

If you watch enough shows under this format, you quickly get a sense of how long a “long-form commercial” runs. The Nudge blog watched one this week that lasted 90 seconds. But if it’s your first time encountering this advertising format, you are a bit uncertain about the commercial’s length. 1 minute? 2 minutes? More? You also aren’t necessarily sure whether the long-form commercial is going to be shorter or longer than the total ad time in the program with “normal commercial breaks.” Do you have to experience more commercial pain up front to get the enjoyment of subsequent commercial-free viewing?

It seems, at least, that is not the case. When the Nudge blog watched the same 22-minute program under both formats, the normal commercial breaks ended up running 15 seconds longer than the single long-form commercial at the beginning. In fact, even under the normal format, Hulu forces you to watch a 30-second commercial before your program starts. The test would be more interesting if you actually got to start watching right away, or if Hulu allowed sponsors to push the boundaries of “long-form.” How pleasurable is uninterrupted viewing? What’s tempting enough to get you to forsake it?

Hulu also employs a bit of choice architecture to nudge you toward the long-form commercial. Of the two boxes shown at the start of the program, the long-form commercial box is already checked. And there is a 15-second countdown clock, after which, if no choice has been made, the long-form commercial kicks in. So the long-form commercial sponsor clearly wants you to exhibit a bit of self-control for their message’s sake.

Does the patience of Hulu viewers mirror the results of Mischel’s test? Only Hulu knows. For now, it hasn’t said anything.

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1) Decision making when you’re in poverty is hard because every decision is critical. Taxes mental resources and self-control.

2) At Buenos Aires restaurants, diners who want salt now have to ask their waiters. Hat tip: Ramiro Lynch.

3) Apple made the shuffle function in the iPod “less random to make it feel more random,” according to Steve Jobs. Hat tip: John Kenny.

4) 100-calorie packs do reduce caloric intake among the heaviest.

5) The Optimism Bias – Time’s cover story.

6) Self-control for Max OS X.

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To a behavioral economist, the Waiting for Godot video game is the ultimate test of self control. How long can you wait?


Thaler has described the self-control problem as a tension between what are essentially humans’ two selves: the myopic short-run self that wants everything RIGHT NOW! and the disciplined long-run self that can bear the costs of waiting for a payoff. In a recent working paper, Supreet Kaur, Michael Kremer, and Sendhil Mullainathan ask how the workplace can assist or sabotage the best efforts of our long-run selves.

They develop a series of experiments at an Indian data entry company in which workers can choose to be paid in two ways: 1) A simple straightforward rate with a payment for each data entry field they complete; 2) A commitment contract that allows the worker to set some data entry target. If they hit the target, workers receive a full payment for each data entry field completed. If they don’t make it, they receive half a payment for each data entry field completed.

Econs should choose the second contract, pick a target of 0 and earn, well, whatever they can filling out data entry fields. Humans who recognize their self-control problems might choose the second contract and set more ambitious targets in order to boost their performance.

When offered the choice of (the second) commitment contract, workers choose positive targets 35 percent of the time, with targets being set at a non-trivial level. In addition, simply being offered the choice of a commitment contract increases production and wages by 2.3 percent on average relative to the control contract.

Because the choice of contracts is randomized, the authors are also able to look at the social effects of fellow workers.

(H)aving a peer with above average productivity increases own productivity by 5 percent. We further find that the effect on productivity appears to operate through increases in work hours rather than productivity per unit of time.

Full pdf is here.

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1) Self-control and self-admiration are part of a virtuous feedback loop.

2) Humans grossly underestimate the likelihood that someone will give them help if they ask for it. It turns out that others are more willing to help than most think.

3) A North Carolina electric company adopts a version of the Keep the Change program called Operate Round Up. Customers can choose to have their utility bills rounded up to the nearest dollar with the difference donated to area charities. The average donation is $6/year and the company serves about 2 million North Carolinians. So that could work out to about $12 million a year in charitable donations if every customer participated. Hat tip: Colin Smith

4) Virtual worlds give behavioral economists better environments to test models of behavior.

5) First carbon footprints, now water footprints.

6) A healthy behavioral decision isn’t as simple as taking personal responsibility. Hat tip: Jodi Beggs.

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Richard Thaler, speaking recently at a World Economic Forum panel.

“Let’s go back to Adam Smith,” Mr. Thaler suggested on a high-profile panel on Rebuilding Economics. “No, actually, let’s go back to Adam.”

“When it was just the demand for apples, the model still worked pretty well,” he said. “But today we have Apple and the iPhone pricing strategy.”

“Adam could deal with apples — as long as there were no serpents and women,” Mr. Thaler added. “When you add serpents and women, you get self-control problems that the model cannot deal with.”

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That’s psychologist Walter Mischel, originator of the famous marshmallow experiment on self-control, describing the addictive properties of Facebook for today’s adolescents. To resist the temptation, some have devised creative commitment strategies.

After several failed efforts at self-regulation, Neeka Salmasi, 15, a sophomore at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., finally asked her sister, Negin, 25, to change her Facebook password every Sunday night and give it back to her the following Friday night.

Full story in NYT.

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Psychology professor Walter Mischel’s 1960s experiment involving children, sugary sweets, and self-control has become a classic. The set-up is simple. A researcher lets a child pick a favorite food from a tray of  cookies, marshmallows, candies, pretzels, and other sweets. The researcher puts that treat on the table in front of the child and makes an offer. The child can eat it now. Or the child can wait a few minutes while the researcher goes to check on something else, and get two treats when the researcher returns. If the child loses patience, she can ring a bell, the researcher will come right back, and the child can eat the treat right away. She does not get another one, of course.

How children behaved in the Mischel experiment turned out to be a good predictor of other behaviors later in life. For instance, those who couldn’t wait for the second treat had more behavioral problems in school and scored lower on standardized tests. Those who could wait scored higher, maintained friendships well, and handled stress better. The experiment has been repeated many times since. Here is a recent one with marshmallows and some kids bravely fighting temptation as best they can.

Hat tip: Johannis Jappen


A pair of new marketing studies in the Journal of Consumer Research says they nudge people to eat more. Previously, consumer behavior research has found that people eat more when a large portion is put in front of them.

But one of the new studies, led by Rita Coelho do Vale at the Technical University of Lisbon, found people believe smaller packages help them “regulate hedonic, tempting consumption,” but in fact their consumption can actually increase. Large packages, on the other hand, trigger concern about overeating.

The participants watched episodes of “Friends” and were told the study was about evaluating ads. Bags of potato chips — of differing sizes, of course — were slipped into the test.

The result: Smaller packages are more likely to fuel temptation. “Because they are considered to be innocent pleasures, [small packages] may turn out to be sneaky small sins,” the researchers conclude.

The other study, by three Arizona State researchers, looked directly at those 100 calorie “mini-packs.” The worst overeating is among chronic dieters.

The researchers believe their research shows that the ubiquitous small packages may actually undermine dieters’ attempts to limit calories. “On the one hand, consumers perceive the mini-packs to be a generous portion of food (numerous small food morsels in each pack and multiple mini-packs in each box); on the other hand, consumers perceive the mini-packs to be diet food. For chronic dieters, this perceptual dilemma causes a tendency to overeat, due to their emotion-laden relationship with food.”

In a series of studies, the researchers assessed peoples’ perceptions of M&Ms in mini-packs versus regular-sized packages. They found that participants tended to have conflicting thoughts about the mini-packs: They thought of them as “diet food,” yet they overestimated how many calories the packages contained. In subsequent studies, the researchers assessed participants’ relationship with food, dividing them into “restrained” and “unrestrained” eaters. The “restrained” eaters tended to consume more calories from mini-packs than “unrestrained” participants.

The same issue of the Journal also includes a study on fast food choice architecture, in which restaurants have eliminated the smallest soda sizes in response to customers who pick the middle size. Starbucks already knows this lesson.

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