In college, my friend Jesse and I often discussed the “night guy vs. morning guy” phenomenon. Night guy would say, “I can totally get by on four hours of sleep – let’s stay up.” Morning guy would curse night guy as he rushed to class late and tired.
A HBS Working Knowledge article documents and codifies this type of behavior and provides a link to the PDF of a working paper by Todd Rogers and Max Bazerman. Here’s a brief overview from the executive summary:
Rogers and Bazerman show through four experiments that people are more likely to choose what they believe they should choose when the choice will be implemented in the future rather than in the present, a tendency they call “future lock-in.” They also discuss directions for future research and applications for public policy, an arena in which citizens are often asked to consider binding policies that trade short-term interests for long-term benefits. Key concepts include:
- Tension occurs between an individual’s immediate self-interest and the interests of all others, including his or her own “future self.” Individuals tend to think that their future selves will behave more virtuously than their present selves.
- Four studies demonstrated the future lock-in effect, which describes a person’s increased willingness to choose and support a binding “should-choice” when it is to be implemented in the future rather than in the present.
- Policymakers could leverage the benefits of future lock-in by advocating for reforms that would be decided upon in the present, but go into effect in the future. Future lock-in would encourage citizens to more heavily weight a policy’s abstract merits rather than its concrete costs.
The working paper presents several studies, including one on donation. They find that “the future lock-in effect… suggests changing the structure of the donation such that the prospective donor can commit now to donate in the future.”
This work obviously has implications for development professionals in nonprofits, and also brought to mind another HBS Working Knowledge article from July 2007 (thanks, Gmail, for making email archiving and search so simple!) which was, in fact, also co-authored by Rogers and Bazerman with Katy Milkman. It also chronicles the “want” vs. “should” cognitive dissonance, and study it in terms of grocery shopping and DVD rentals. You can read that article, an interview with Rogers and Milkman, here.