Losing Sight of Piecemeal Progress: People Lump and Dismiss Improvement Efforts That Fall Short of Categorical Change—Despite Improving

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Abstract
Fourteen experiments ( N = 10,556 adult participants, including more than 20,000 observed choices across 25 issues) documented how people perceive and respond to relative progress out in the world, revealing a robust “negative-lumping” effect. As problematic entities worked to better their ways, participants shifted to dismiss them if they fell short of categorical reform—despite distinctions in improvement. This increased dismissal of relative gains as “all the same” was driven by the belief that falling short signals an eschewal of doing the bare minimum and lacking serious intent to change, making these gains seem less deserving of recognition. Critically, participants then “checked out”: They underrewarded and underinvested in efforts toward “merely” incremental improvement. Finally, in all experiments, participants lumped together absolute failures but not absolute successes, highlighting a unique blindness to gradations of badness. When attempts to eradicate a problem fail, people might dismiss smaller but critical steps that were and can still be made.