You've Got to Feel the Zero

Friday, June 13, 2008

By Wray Herbert

I work out in the gym just about every morning, but I can’t say that I’m always eager to get started. I’m basically lazy, and exercise is hard. Many days I would much rather linger over a second mug of coffee and browse the newspapers. But I don’t, because I have made a bargain with the universe.

The bargain is simple: I pay a small price for a big payoff later, in good health and well being. I know there are no money-back guarantees, but it’s a wager I’m willing to make. People strike similar deals all the time. We choose years of hard work and poverty to go to college and graduate school, banking on later gratification, or we forego this winter’s tropical vacation to save for retirement.

Or we don’t. Lots of people see these as bad deals, and would rather take the money and run, live for today. Why is that? How can some of us see a particular tradeoff as advantageous, while others of us see precisely the same deal as foolish? Psychologists are very interested in this question, as are policy makers, who see the huge social costs of impulsive decision making.

One theory is that some people are simply not as good at forecasting the future. If something is way off in the distance, it’s very difficult to keep its importance front and center in the mind. So we discount it, literally. But is it possible to think about such tradeoffs differently, in a way that might help us delay our immediate rewards for a better deal later on?

Stanford University psychologists Eran Magen, Carol Dweck and James Gross decided to explore this in the lab. Specifically, they wondered if the way a tradeoff is “framed” in the mind might affect whether or not we choose an immediate but small payoff over a greater reward later on. For example, you probably think of a tradeoff as two competing options: You can have $5 right now, or $6.20 in a month. By framing it this way, you focus on the difference between $5 and $6.20, which is $1.20. That’s a lot less than the immediate $5, which has a lot of emotional pull. So it’s easy to understand why a lot of people might go for it.

But what if you conceptualized the tradeoff in a very different way, focusing on the passing of time? Picture yourself on one of those moving walkways, going through life. Every so often, someone hands you an envelope, which contains your wages in cash. You could still take that $5 now, but that’s not the end of the deal; time keeps moving, and a month later someone hands you another envelope. You open it expectantly and . . . nada, zero, zip. And you were expecting a raise to boot. Think about the disappointment.

That’s the real choice you have in life, and that empty envelope makes all the difference. The details of the tradeoff haven’t changed. The empty envelope was there all along, but it was hidden. That is, choosing between $5 and $6.20 suggests two payoffs frozen in time. But life is a continuum, and in reality there are two paydays, one of which must be a big zero. Projecting yourself forward to the day of the greater disappointment may be enough to make you opt for less disappointment today.

At least that’s the theory, which the psychologists tested on the Internet and describe in the July issue of the journal Psychological Science. They had participants choose between immediate and delayed payments in a variety of scenarios, varying the amounts of money and the time interval that separated now and the future. Sometimes the tradeoff was stated as: $5 now or $6.20 later. Other times it was: $5 now and $0 later OR $0 now and $6.20 later. Invariably, when the zero-dollar payday was spelled out, rather than hidden, the subjects were less impulsive in their choices. Put another way, they didn’t like the notion of opening that empty envelope, even off in the future, and it nudged them toward a more rational weighing of the options.

So what does this have to do with exercise and health? Say you blow off the gym and linger over coffee, or get another hour’s sleep—whatever. That’s like taking your $5 now. But it’s harder to enjoy as much when you know that the walkway is still moving. And somewhere down the line there is an empty envelope with your name on it.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at Selections from this weblog now appear in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 2:39 PM


At 4:38 PM , Blogger koni said...

Woah- this concept is amazing. Zero payday- good one. :)