How Uncertainty Makes It Hard to Do What You Should Do

As a member of the fraternity of people who spend too much time chastising themselves for not doing what they should be doing, it’s always nice to find a new external explanation for bouts of unproductivity. This week’s excuse comes from a new study on uncertainty by Penn’s Katherine Milkman. In a series of four experiments Milkman found that dealing with uncertainty exhausts self-control, and thus makes it more likely you’ll choose a “want” option (i.e. behaviors that are hedonistic, irresponsible, or aimed at short-term gain) over a “should” option (i.e. behaviors aimed at long term-gain.)

In Milkman’s initial experiment students persisted longer on a series of math problems when they were allowed to scratch off a lottery ticket before beginning the allotted ten minutes of work time rather than after the time was up. In a follow-up experiment participants were asked to imagine their roommate was bringing home a pizza, and that they could choose either a fruit salad (the should option) or brownies (the want option) for desert. When participants were told their roommate was bringing home either pesto chicken pizza or carne asada pizza, they were significantly more likely to choose brownies as a desert than when they were told exactly what kind of pizza would be brought home. Dealing with the simple uncertainty about the type of pizza they would be eating reduced self-control enough to make people choose the unhealthy desert.

Though we might not realize it, there are varying degrees of uncertainty present when we make many want vs. should decisions. As Milkman points out while discussing her findings, if doctors or financial advisors are careful about minimizing the uncertainty in decision making environments they can help nudge people to more should choices. Moreover, reducing uncertainty may even be able to mitigate extremely harmful behaviors.

Past research has suggested that unethical decision making may be a want choice (see Mead, Baumeister, Gino, Schweitzer, & Ariely, 2009; Tenbrunsel, Diekmann, Wade-Benzoni, & Bazerman, 2010), implying that the presence of uncertainty may reduce ethical decision making. Future studies could test this intriguing hypothesis: for instance, does increasing financial uncertainty lead to a concurrent increase in unethical behavior?

Minimizing uncertainty is no easy or wholly beneficial task. In fact, underestimating the amount of uncertainty in the global financial system is one thing that facilitated its collapse. Perhaps the best course of action is not to gloss over real uncertainty, but to emphasize certainty where it exists or where its undererestimation can be advantageous (e.g. “if you keep eating like this, you definitely won’t make it past 60.”) That’s not to say the we should immediately re-design society to minimize uncertainty in decision-making contexts, but it’s something to keep in mind as you struggle to induce your own or another person’s should behaviors.

The study also hints at why habits are so important. If you get home from work and stop to think “will I go to the gym today?”, that uncertainty is already starting to sap your ability to control your gym-avoiding tendencies. But if you get home knowing you’ll go to the gym because you’ve gone on 23 consecutive Tuesdays, it will be easier to actually go.
Milkman, K.L. (2012). Unsure what the future will bring? You may overindulge: Uncertainty increases the appeal of wants over shoulds Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.003


One Response to How Uncertainty Makes It Hard to Do What You Should Do

  1. david biggs says:

    i believe that this is completely true. if i get into a habit of going to the gym and get the thought that its an option out of my head then i end up going to the gym everyday without fail. but the moment i start to think ad question whether or not i have tie or if i really want to is when i end up deciding not to or make an excuse for why i shouldn’t today. the same thing happens when i try to save money.

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