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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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Notice to Readers: The Nudge blog will not be blogging on its usual panoply of topics for the rest of the week. Look for our return and new posts next week. Until then…

Watch out! Your favorite TV show may be subtly trying to teach you something.

In order to document how well viewers learn health information from entertainment television, the (Kaiser Family) Foundation worked with writers at Grey’s Anatomy to embed a health message in an episode, and then surveyed viewers on the topic before and after the episode aired. The storyline involved an HIV positive pregnant woman who learns that with the proper treatment, she has a 98% chance of having a healthy baby.

The study found that the audience’s awareness of this information increased by 46 percentage points (from 15% to 61%), a four-fold increase among all viewers. This translates to more than eight million people learning correct information about mother-to-child HIV transmission rates from watching the episode.

But how long did they remember that correct information? The full report is here.

When it comes to other kinds of medical information, you can count on television to aggravate other behavioral biases, particularly the availability bias. The most common health topic found in top-rated TV shows is an “unusual illness or disease” (Housephiles know this all too well). These strange diseases appear more than four times as often as heart disease, five times as often as cancer, and 20 times as often as diabetes, “all more prevalent medical conditions among the American populace,” according to Kaiser.

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