Want/Should Conflict

The finding from behavioral economics that rang most true to me when I first learned about the field in early 2005 was that people are impatient and later regret it. Guided by our passions, although we frequently know exactly what we should do when faced with a decision (e.g., go to the gym, order a salad, deposit earnings in a savings account), often our resolve falters in the heat of the moment and we instead do what we want (e.g., binge-watch Netflix on the couch, indulge in a greasy pizza, spend earnings frivolously). While many clever, controlled experiments with undergraduates paid to complete surveys have documented this tendency, I found myself longing for convincing demonstrations of what my dissertation advisor Max Bazerman dubbed “want/should conflict” in the “wild.” 

So, as a PhD student, I sweet-talked a large online DVD rental company into sharing its customers’ rental histories with me. This allowed me and my collaborators (Max Bazerman and Todd Rogers) to demonstrate that people procrastinate when it comes to watching highbrow, educational films (think Schindler’s List), but whip through lowbrow, “want” movies (think Spiderman). In fact, online renters are significantly more likely to return movies out-of-order (reversing their previously stated preferences) when they rent a highbrow film before a lowbrow one than visa versa. I also convinced a large online grocer to let me analyze its customers’ orders over the course of a year. 

My co-authors and I showed that the same customers tend to spend less and buy a higher percentage of “should” foods (think broccoli) as well as a lower percentage of “want” foods (think ice cream) the further in advance of delivery they place an order. 

Plagued by uncertainty about where (and whether!) I would find employment after graduate school, and finding it harder and harder not to give into temptations on a daily basis (“sure, that scoop of Ben & Jerry’s sounds great”; “one more episode of Battlestar Gallactica and then I’ll go to sleep”), I became convinced that uncertainty about the future made it harder to exert self-control. I proved this in a series of experiments but then, happily employed, turned to a rosier question: What increases our ability to resist temptations? 

A research team—led by my first Ph.D. advisee, Hengchen Dai, and including Jason Riis—noted that our lives are full of moments that mark the beginning of new cycles or “fresh starts” (e.g., the start of a new week, month, year; the celebration of a holiday or birthday). Our team showed that after these fresh starts, we are more likely to do what we should. For instance, in one paper, we found that people search more for the term “diet” on Google, visit the gym more frequently, and are more likely to set goals on a popular goal-setting website following fresh start moments. 

Read an academic piece I co-authored summarizing the current state of knowledge about want/should conflict.


Related media content:

☛ Why We Make Resolutions (and Why They Fail)
Maria Konnikova
The New Yorker