Take as long as you like…


A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research (October 2007) examines an interesting issue in human decision making, what they call the “Duration Heuristic” which involves peoples perception of the cost effectiveness of time taken for a task.

I’ll take a step back here and just explain what is meant by heuristic in layman’s terms by using an example. If I ask you to choose a positive feature of two products and that feature isn’t clearly apparent and you don’t have prior expert knowledge, lets say the nutritional value of 2 loaves of bread, you will most likely choose the brand you are most familiar with. This is an example of the recognition heuristic. This is tendency for humans to choose something that is familiar rather than something that is unknown. At this stage I’m sure a few of you are thinking “..but I’d read the pack, it’s printed there on the side, and then I could evaluate it”. That’s all fine and dandy and is one of the traditional ways of thinking about how humans think however in the RW (Real World) we are often pressed for time and…and this the important part.. these simple heuristics work quite well most of the time.

This area of cognitive science is rather new, like in the last 10 years new and if want to read more you can get a taste in this article by Gerd Gigerenzer. These heuristics are basically simple rules that humans use when they are not being totally rational like Spock, which is nearly all of the time. Many people underplay their importance and we have grown accustomed to viewing humans as these super cool, work it out rationally, mistakes are bad , sort of Utopian weird idea that wacky religious nuts could dream up when you ignore the RW evidence.

However back to this new heuristic. In summary, consumers (i.e. you, me , everyone) often think that there is a positive correlation between the length of service and it’s value. In particular in situations involving price, even where the service would be better if quicker, the perception persisted. How could this be? Well, in many cases the amount of effort put into a task can reflect the quality of the outcome. In cases like this I like to strip away the glitz and complexity of the 21st century and go back a few ice ages to a hunter gatherer society. Our brains these days are pretty much the same as back then and those who survived back then passed their genes and brain structures onto their descendants, which is you and me, so I reckon it’s a fair model.

During a day Fred goes out hunting and Wilma looks after the children and does some gathering. Fred has spent time making his hunting tools, Wilma the same, and it would be reasonable to assume the more care and effort put into tools, the better they turn out. Getting the stone to fit the haft snugger, spending more time binding the axe point to the shaft, working on the skin scraper etc. Similarly when gathering the more time spent, the greater the collection and the more food. And here we see the basis of our modern work ethic. More is good.

What this simple heuristic our minds use does not account for though is efficiency. Bang for buck. The research subjects viewed lock picking as better if it took longer, even though a bit of thought considering it’s time based payment and sooner is better and you could rationally come to another conclusion. That however would take more thought and a bit of frontal lobe action, something our brains can be loathe to do as they generally don’t have this Protestant work effort we get conditioned to accept.

I remember that in poorer times (or before easy credit) I’d think about the back for buck of entertainment. Cost of seeing a band for x hours versus seeing a movie for y hours. How many dollars goes though a Galaga video game machine per hour? I think local bands and beer won out on that account, I’m a cheap drunk. Books also come out ahead as these days, I’m a slow reader. But how many people think of the number of hours of “entertainment” they will get from a shiny new Plasma TV before it wears out? Is that a much better quality of experience than a large screen for half the price? Maybe I should watch it more to get my ‘moneys worth’, totally ignoring that the money is spent and now you’re most likely wasting time, which is much more valuable, as well. But all this thinking is difficult and uses up time that could be spent relaxing.
Where’s that remote? At least that’s an easy decision.

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One Comment on “Take as long as you like…”

  1. […] video game rental wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptCost of seeing a band for x hours versus seeing a movie for y hours. How many dollars goes though a Galaga video game machine per hour? I think local bands and beer won out on that account, I’ma cheap drunk. Books also come out ahead as … […]


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