This morning, while the coffee was brewing, I walked out my back door, strolled to my mailbox at the curb, and strolled back. Along the way, I picked up not only yesterday’s mail, but also the daily paper, which had been tossed on the lawn, and an empty garbage can. I put the garbage can back where it belongs, near the garage, and brought the mail and paper inside. I did this without a glitch, effortlessly.
Or so it seemed. Of course, it was not effortless. I had to lift and walk and carry and lift again, and so forth. I also had to plan. Should I walk all the way to the mailbox, get the mail, then pick up the paper? Or grab the garbage can on the way to the curb? Or first the paper, then the mail, then . . . You see what I mean. I wasn’t aware of making any choices or calculations, but clearly I did, just as we all do every day as we navigate our world.
Psychological scientists are very interested in such ordinary, everyday planning, because it may reflect certain habits of mind are shaping more consequential plans and actions. Among those scientists is Penn State’s David Rosenbaum, who with his colleagues Lanyun Gong and Cory Adam Potts has been studying effort—when and why we either spend or conserve our energy. They set out to confirm the intuitive notion that we don’t use any more effort than we must in our routine daily actions.
They set up a series of experiments not unlike my morning ritual—simpler actually. In the study, volunteers were asked to walk down an alley, pick up a bucket along the way, and deposit it at the end. They had a choice of picking up a bucket that was close to them, and therefore had to be carried further, or a bucket that was a bit further away from the start and thus required less carrying. The buckets were of equal weight, and the volunteers were instructed to do whatever seemed easier.
The results were, to use the scientists’ word, “astonishing.” Instead of doing what would seem obvious—choosing the bucket that would require less carrying—the volunteers consistently did the opposite. They picked up the load that was closer to them, making more work for themselves. The scientists label this irrational phenomenon “precrastination”—or the opposite of the familiar human habit of procrastination.
The scientists ran many versions of this experiment, to try to figure out why people would deliberately waste energy. All of the results taken together indicate that participants care much more about the approach distance than they do about the carrying distance. That is, conserving physical effort does not seem to be a priority. The scientists ruled out various alternative explanations in these experiments: For example, they showed that participants are not oblivious to weight or effort, nor is the closer bucket more likely to capture their attention. Coordination does not seem to figure into decisions.
So why would we have a strong preference for hoisting loads that are closer and require more work? Rosenbaum and his colleagues decided to ask the participants, and when they did, nearly every one said the exact same thing: “I wanted to get the task done as soon as I could.” In other words, they perceived the job as less onerous overall if they got the picking up part out of the way early.
This calculation doesn’t make sense, of course, but the scientists have since found other examples of it. For instance, when people walk or drive places, they are more likely to go a short distance and make a needed turn before traveling a long leg—they choose this over traveling the long leg first, then turning and ending with a short leg. The two strategies are equivalent, and reach the same goal in the same time, but turning early creates the illusion of arriving sooner.
The scientists do have a plausible explanation for precrastination, which they detail in a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science. When we make plans, even simple ones, we need to hold our goals and interim goals in mind as we go through the steps. This taxes our working memory, and if there is a way to reduce this cognitive burden, we do so. Indeed, the urge to reduce this mental load may be so great that we are willing to expend extra physical effort to ease our minds. So in the end we are managing and minimizing our effort—even if that effort has nothing to do with strolling across the yard or gathering the daily mail.
Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting on psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.