Inside Influence Report November 2010
Whether it’s exercising a little more, saving money for a rainy day or finding the time to prepare for that new project, many people find it easy to come up with an excuse that puts off completing a less than exciting task to another day.
Typically there is a perception that we associate procrastination with tasks that are less pleasant to us, but an interesting new series of studies points out that often we are just as likely to put off activities that we find attractive and enjoyable. As well as providing insights into the persuasive pull of procrastination the results of this study also point to some potentially important considerations when it comes to persuading people to take you up on your offers and proposals.
Researchers Suzanne Shu from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA and Ayelet Gneezy from the University of California in San Diego thought that people might have a tendency to put off not just less desirable tasks but desirable ones too. They thought that one reason why this might be the case is the fact that people typically believe that they will have more time in the future to carry out enjoyable activities but fail to realize that they will likely be just as busy in the future. As a result they simply end up not completing the activity.
To test their ideas a series of studies were set up one of which offered participants a gift certificate that was good for coffee and cake worth $6 at a high quality local bakery store. In fact two different gift certificates were distributed and whilst both were of equal value the expiration dates differed. One would expire in three weeks and another expire in two months.
In an interesting twist, the researchers had previously asked a comparable group of people about the attractiveness of the gift certificates and the likelihood that they would redeem them. The participants who evaluated the certificates with the longer expiration date reported more positive feelings towards the bakery store and believed that they would be more likely to redeem the certificate compared to the group who evaluated the shorter dated one.
In fact when people were asked to predict whether they would use the certificate or not, there was a significantly higher level of probability use in the group that evaluated the two-month offer compared to the three week one (68% v 50%).
However people’s predications of whether they would redeem the coupons were very different to the reality of what actually happened. Just about a third of participants who were given the certificate with a three week expiry date visited the bakery store to claim their coffee and cake. But only 6% of those given the two-month certificate redeemed theirs. In essence even though people said they preferred to receive an offer that had a longer expiration date because it afforded them more time to redeem the offer, in reality it caused less of them to actually do so.
In order to ensure that the results of the study were attributable principally to procrastination and not another factor or reason a series of follow up surveys were completed. Those who did redeem the certificates reported an enjoyable and worthwhile experience. Those that didn’t redeem them conveyed their regret and were most likely to agree with statements such as “I got too busy and ran out of time” or “I kept thinking that I would do it a bit later.” There was a much lower agreement to statements such as “I forgot” and “I don’t like pastries” or “It seemed like too much effort.”
The results of this research provide some interesting and potentially beneficial insights for those looking to influence clients and customers to take up their offers and proposals. Whilst people typically reported finding the offers that provided a longer time frame in which to evaluate and redeem them as more attractive, in reality they were less likely to actually redeem them compared to short time frame offers. As a result offering additional benefits or bonuses to encourage early redemptions seems sensible.
Such an approach should also work for your time too. Imagine that you want to fix a meeting with an important new prospect. Whilst offering them lots of dates when you are available gives them a sense of your flexibility and customer orientation, such an approach might actually backfire especially if you offer dates well into the future. Regular readers of the Inside Influence Report and the books Influence – Science & Practice, and Yes! will recognise how these findings align to the principle of scarcity.
Ironically people’s tendency to procrastinate enjoyable experiences might provide an unexpected and profitable benefit to some companies. The US retailer Best Buy, in its 2006 fiscal accounts, reported a gain of over $40 million from customers who had failed to redeem gift cards that were purchased before the expiration date. In fact the study authors cite a recent report from the Tower Group who estimate that the total value of unused gift cards in the US is close to $8 billion. Hearing of this huge surplus of unused cash has caused one consumer group to call for a change to the law requiring retailers to extend further the expiration dates on the gift cards they issue. This research would suggest that rather than reduce the problem such a move might only serve to increase it.
If only they looked a little more closely at the science.
Source: Shu, Suzanne B. & Gneezy, A. Procrastination of Enjoyable Experiences. Journal of Marketing Research (2010 in press).