Abstraction to Increase Effort (and Spending)

When there is a medium placed between our effort and a desired outcome, we strive to maximise this medium regardless of whether or not it leads optimally to that outcome (think points or virtual currencies as a medium when attempting to obtain goods).

That’s my attempt at a concise summary of the findings from a study coining the phrase ‘medium maximisation’.

This example taken from the paper (pdf) and presented by The New York Times may help:

Students were given a choice between two simple tasks. One would take six minutes, and the students were told that they would get a gallon of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream as a reward. The other would require seven minutes of work, and the payment would be a gallon of Haagen-Dazs pistachio.

Not surprisingly, since the second option involved more work and a less popular flavor, only about a quarter of the students chose it.

But the researchers also repeated the experiment with a couple of tweaks. In the new version, the six-minute task led to a payoff of 60 points, and the seven-minute task brought 100 points.

The researchers then told the students that anyone who finished with between 50 and 99 points would be given a gallon of vanilla ice cream. Anyone with 100 points would get pistachio.

Practically, there was no difference between the two experiments. But the outcomes ended up being very different.

In the comments of a previous post of mine looking at the denomination effect, the idea that “the greater the level of abstraction, the more ready we are to spend” was mooted. So it seems to be the case here.

via @BFchirpy