Psychological insights: Arguable and mindless decisions, or just too far away in our future?

A few months ago I booked a holiday. I’d say it was mid-February. It was – most likely – a grey day, probably with some good old English rain. So anything, anywhere and anytime in the world was hugely appealing to me at that point. I booked a flight and a hotel: so exciting, I’m going to Fuerteventura!! Leaving next week, I can’t wait to be laying on the white-sand beaches, burning under the sun, while sipping fresh white wine or a tasty Spanish sangria.

I’m leaving from Gatwick. My flight was £95. Quite a good deal! A nice and early start of the day though. I need to be at the airport at around 4am on a Wednesday morning. A peaceful time to travel: no tubes running, no trains, and probably a few people awake. A not-so-fantastic time, as I ponder whether I should go to sleep or just stay awake? I would stay awake, but then I’d put my feet on the Spanish ground more tired than on a Monday morning. Should I get a cab? Very expensive, £60. But probably the best solution I’ve got so far. Well I would need to think about it. But at least I saved £25 – the other flight option (at a nice and normal fantastic time, 5pm) was £120. A real bargain!

To be honest, if I were to buy the flight today for next week I’d probably go for the £120 one. Less hassle, no cabs needed, no pre-trip tiredness. £25 more for an easier and smoother departure. Why the hell didn’t I think about it in this way? What was I thinking or valuing? Yes – the 4am morning flight would allow me to enjoy a whole day of sun – with £25 more in my bank account. But is this a good trade-off? I’d probably need to pay a £60 cab, and be sleep-deprived (okay maybe deprivation is exaggerated, but still, not in my best shape). Where’s the bargain now?

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today”, Abraham Lincoln once said .

So, what is happening here?

When I booked my holiday in February, June felt and looked very far away in a very distant future. Fuerte (let’s make it short) was distant, abstract, and simple in my foreseeable future. The holiday was structured, but decontextualised from my day-to-day routine. Back then, the idea of Fuerte felt a very desirable plan. The question was about the “why” – why go? I said, why not!

A few days away from my holiday, Fuerte looks very concrete, the logistical organisation is ‘complex’ and still unstructured. It’s also much contextualised in my routine, I need to think how that day will work out best for me. Rather than being focused on the desirability of going to Fuerte, a few days away now, Fuerte is just about feasibility. Now it’s all about the “how”, how will I organize myself? I already know why I’m going.

I’m not the only one that has been in this situation or similar ones, trading off the benefits and costs of our decisions.

Let’s consider a theory – the temporal construal theory. Behavioural science suggests that when people make decisions it is very different if they are deciding for something that is happening in the immediate future or something that will take place in the distant future.

  • The immediate future has a low-level construal
  • The distant future has a high-level construal.

 What is important to us when we make a decision? What factors do we consider?

As we have seen in my example, the distant future feels abstract rather than concrete, it’s simple not complex, it’s about desirability rather than feasibility. What this means is that people have very different mind-sets, think in very different terms and apply a different decision making process when they decide for something in the immediate future vs. distant future.

People assign a relative value to payoffs at different points in time. Generally people are biased towards the present (present bias) and tend to discount the future (time discounting).

 If I need to take the flight at 4am in the future, it will be fine, I’ll figure it out – I say to myself. But if I were to book myself a flight for tomorrow, rest assured I would pay just a bit extra but I would opt for the better option. The one that would save me money (on the cabs), as well as time, stress and personal energy.

What does it mean for advertisers?

It means that when we are dealing with a product that has a value in a particular point in the future for our audience, we need to think very clearly about the distinction between near future and distant future. For instance, this can apply when we are trying to encourage ticket bookings in advance, promote events that are months away, or stimulate people to save for their Christmas shopping. As my example tried to illustrate, choices have extremely different characteristics and values just depending on when they are placed in time. People think about products with very different mind-sets depending on whether they are prompted to consume them now and have an immediate, tangible gratification or whether it is something they will want to consume in the future.

I think this is an interesting lesson from psychology and behavioural science. Gladly, after a three-year Psychology degree, and many dreadful and inconceivable ungodly hour awakenings, I might have learned a few lessons. I actually booked the 5pm flight this time!



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