Immediacy Bias

Immediacy bias

(Source: Flickr)

Whether it be pictures of cats on the Internet, a phone call from a friend asking you to come to the movies tonight, or a university assignment due tomorrow morning, we all suffer from it.

We tend to perceive immediate emotions much more intensely when making decisions about what we should do right now.

Three examples:

  1. People tend to view a charitable cause as more deserving if it arouses more immediate emotions. This helps to explain why scary diseases like cancer attract more donations;
  2. People tend to prefer hot chips with gravy over a healthy salad (although this might just be me); and
  3. People have a tendency to procrastinate, leaving the majority of the work until there is only just enough time to complete it. This is why projects typically set false deadlines (well in advance of the real ones).

The good news is that you can overcome the immediacy bias by exerting your willpower.

Donate to the most deserving charity!

Eat healthy today!

Get it done now!

Unfortunately, though, willpower appears to be a finite resource, and exerting self-control in one activity will reduce the amount of mental energy available for self-control in other activities.

Research conducted by Roy Baumeister and others in 1998 showed that people who initially resisted a temptation of chocolates were subsequently less able to persist on a difficult task.

Psychologists call this “ego depletion” and it has real implications for your performance and productivity in the work place.

How can you fight its effects?

Five suggestions for overcoming ego depletion and maintaining willpower in daily life:

  1. Regular snacking: A number of experiments have connected reduced blood sugar levels with reduced levels of willpower. Instead of having three big meals per day, with blood sugar levels dropping in between, it may be more helpful to graze throughout the day;
  2. Good vibes: People with a positive mood have been shown to exhibit improved willpower and self control. This is an interesting insight because it suggests that motivational speakers and positive affirmations (while seeming hokey) are actually valuable in helping us remain in control of our lives;
  3. Grit: Research has also shown that people who believe in their ability to persist stand better odds of doing so.
  4. Practice: Willpower is thought to be like a muscle. On any given day, exercising your self control will lead to fatigue. But over a longer time period, regular exercise will increase your stamina.
  5. Know your limits: Sometimes you have to know your limits and avoid temptation. Odysseus ordered himself bound to the sails to ensure that he could not be seduced by the Sirens song. In a similar way, you need to know your weaknesses and find ways to restrain yourself. If you have a weak spot for cookies, don’t place a large cookie jar on your desk at work.