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Unrealistically Optimistic Consumers: A Selective Hypothesis Testing Account for Optimism in Predictions of Future Behavior

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Unrealistically Optimistic Consumers: A Selective Hypothesis Testing Account for Optimism in Predictions of Future Behavior

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We propose that when predicting future behavior, consumers selectively (but unwittingly) test the hypothesis that they will behave ideally. This selective hypothesis testing perspective on unrealistic optimism suggests that estimates of future behavior should be similar to those made by individuals who assume that conditions will be ideal. Moreover, consumers who initially provide estimates assuming that conditions will be ideal should recognize that the world is not ideal and so should test a more realistic hypothesis. In line with these predictions, we find that ideal-world estimates (e.g., In an ideal world, how often will you exercise next week?) do not differ from standard estimates (e.g., How often will you exercise next week?). We also find that individuals who initially estimate their behavior in an ideal world subsequently make more realistic predictions. (c) 2008 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc..
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Unrealistically Optimistic Consumers:
A Selective Hypothesis Testing Account for Optimism in Predictions of Future Behavior
ROBIN J. TANNER AND KURT A. CARLSON*
*Robin Tanner is assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison,
53706 (rtanner@bus.wisc.edu). Kurt Carlson is assistant professor of marketing at Duke
University, Durham, 27708 (kurt.carlson@duke.edu). Email correspondence can be sent to either
author. The authors acknowledge the helpful input of the editor, associate editor, and reviewers.
We would like to thank Jim Bettman, Tanya Chartrand, Rick Larrick, John Lynch, Jay Russo,
and Larry Sanna for valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this article. The authors contributed
equally to this article. This paper was partially based on the first author‘s dissertation at Duke
University.
Abstract
We propose that when predicting future behavior, consumers selectively (but unwittingly) test
the hypothesis that they will behave ideally. This selective hypothesis testing perspective on
unrealistic optimism suggests that estimates of future behavior should be similar to those made
by individuals who assume that conditions will be ideal. Moreover, consumers who initially
provide estimates assuming that conditions will be ideal should recognize that the world is not
ideal and so should test a more realistic hypothesis. In line with these predictions, we find that
ideal world estimates (e.g., In an ideal world, how often will you exercise next week?) do not
differ from standard estimates (e.g., How often will you exercise next week?). We also find that
individuals who initially estimate their behavior in an ideal world subsequently make more
realistic predictions.
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A wealth of research has found that people view the future through rose-tinted glasses. In
general, people tend to believe that they are more likely than others to undertake positive
behaviors or to experience positive events and believe they are less likely to undertake negative
behaviors or to experience negative events (Armor and Taylor 2002; Burger and Burns 1988;
Taylor and Brown 1988; Weinstein 1980). Such unrealistic optimism occurs whether people are
making comparative judgments (e.g., ―Compared to an average student, how likely are you to
catch an STD in the next year?‖) or absolute judgments (e.g., ―How likely are you to catch an
STD in the next year?‖). Typical examples include optimistic estimates of whether one will get a
good first job (Weinstein 1980), avoid an unwanted pregnancy (Burger and Burns 1988),
contract lung cancer (Perlof and Fetzer 1986), or be in a car accident (McKenna 1993).
Interestingly, unrealistic optimism has received little attention from consumer
researchers. This is surprising as the potential implications of unrealistic optimism for consumer
decision making are considerable. For example, if consumers‘ beliefs about their own future
behavior are unrealistically optimistic, and if consumers use these beliefs as inputs to product
valuation, then they may unwittingly overestimate or underestimate how much they will actually
value a product in the future. Put differently, to accurately value a product or service that will be
consumed at a future date consumers must accurately predict their behavior at that future date.
This article focuses on consumers‘ predictions of their future behavior, which we find are
both unrealistically optimistic and influential on downstream decisions. We trace the origin of
these unrealistically optimistic expectations to a process of selective hypothesis testing, wherein
consumers initially adopt a tentative hypothesis of idealistic future behavior and then selectively
recruit information to support it. From this view, we predict that estimates of a specific future
behavior should be nearly as optimistic as estimates of the same behavior made assuming ideal
conditions. Moreover, it should be possible to get consumers to abandon their tentative
hypothesis by making the contrast between ideal and real salient. That is, consumers who first
estimate their behavior in an ideal world (i.e., test a hypothesis of ideal behavior) should realize
for themselves that the world is not ideal and so should test a more realistic hypothesis when
estimating their actual behavior. Consequently, these individuals should provide more realistic
estimates of actual behavior than individuals who simply estimate their behavior (i.e., without
initially estimating it in an ideal world).
The remainder of this article is as follows. In the next section, we briefly review the
literature on unrealistic optimism and introduce our selective hypothesis testing view. Following
this, we present four studies that explore predictions derived from the selective hypothesis testing
perspective. We conclude with discussions of theoretical and practical implications.
BACKGROUND
The robustness of unrealistic optimism has spawned numerous explanations, which can
be broadly categorized as either motivational or nonmotivational. Motivational accounts contend
that unrealistic optimism serves a desire to protect and bolster the self (Hoorens 1995; Taylor
and Armor 1996). For example, Wills (1981) suggests that individuals selectively compare
themselves with targets that produce esteem enhancing estimates (e.g., a comparison to an
individual who has a higher risk of contracting an STD) and thus support their desired
conclusions (e.g., that one is not at risk). In contrast, nonmotivated accounts, most of which
invoke egocentrism, generally contend that cognitive processes are sufficient to produce
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unrealistically optimistic estimates. For example, Weinstein (1987) suggests that individuals
arrive at unrealistically optimistic self-estimates because they focus on the causal actions they
will take in future scenarios, while failing to recognize similar actions that others might take.
Similarly, Kahneman and Tversky (1979) argue for a self-centric mechanism when they suggest
that the planning fallacy is caused by individuals taking an ―inside‖ perspective, focusing on
positive behaviors, while failing to consider less optimal behaviors. They conclude that mental
simulations about future scenarios appear to be biased toward the positive, with an ―idealized‖
version of the future often emerging (Kahneman and Tversky 1982).
Building on the above, we propose a view that borrows from both motivational and
cognitive accounts. Specifically, we propose that individuals faced with estimating their future
behavior are motivated to adopt a hypothesis of ideal behavior, and then selectively recruit
information that accords with this hypothesis. Below we describe this account in detail.
A Selective Hypothesis Testing Account of Unrealistic Optimism
The estimation of one‘s future behavior involves the assembly and integration of various
elements of information about one‘s past behaviors, one‘s expected future state of mind and
body, and the likely state of the world. Theories of how this assembly and integration occur vary
from data-driven (i.e., bottom-up theories) to hypothesis-driven (i.e., top-down theories). In
reality, the process is almost certainly a mixture of the two, with salient data giving rise to a
working hypothesis that guides subsequent information acquisition and integration. For example,
when estimating one‘s future behavior, the working hypothesis might take the form of a
desirable outcome of one‘s future behavior. The top-down influence of such a working
hypothesis greatly simplifies the task of producing an estimate. That is, by focusing on the
working hypothesis and those similar to it, the judge can greatly reduce the set of information
that is perceived as relevant for the estimation at hand. Individuals who simplify processing in
this way are said to be engaging in selective hypothesis testing (for a review see Sanbonmatsu et
al. 1998).
In line with the above, it has long been argued that consumer beliefs are often constructed
around tentative hypotheses (Hoch and Deighton 1989). Thus, consumers faced with predicting
their future behavior are likely to do so by constructing estimates around tentative hypotheses of
their future behavior. Because there are many possibilities for one‘s future behavior, consumers
often simplify matters and focus on a single tentative hypothesis. We propose that the desire to
think positively about oneself, which dominates motivational theories of unrealistic optimism,
causes consumers to adopt a hypothesis of ideal behavior. That is, consumers adopt the
hypothesis that they will behave as they would if there were no substantial obstacles preventing
them from behaving as they wish to. For example, if asked to predict whether he will donate
blood at an upcoming drive, an individual might adopt a tentative hypothesis that he will indeed
have the time and motivation needed to do so. Recent research supports this contention. Newby-
Clark (2005) had participants provide best, worst, and realistic scenarios as to how they would
change their exercise behavior over the next month and found that the realistic estimates most
resembled best case estimates. In a similar vein, Williams and Gilovich (2006) found that
estimates of typical performances were similar to estimates of best performance.
Building from theories of selective hypothesis testing (Gettys and Fisher 1979;
Sanbonmatsu et al. 1998), we posit that consumers selectively test their (working) ideal
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hypothesis by focusing on evidence that supports it and neglecting evidence that contradicts it.
For example, in the blood donation example, individuals would gather information that supports
their donating blood (such as past memories of donation or anticipation of the satisfaction that
donation will bring) and neglect information that is discordant with the hypothesis (such as their
tendency to procrastinate or thoughts about the pain of the needle). Indeed, research suggests that
consumers access information from memory in a way that is consistent with selective hypothesis
testing (Deighton 1984; Posavac, Sanbonmatsu, Kardes, and Fitzsimons 2004). The ultimate
consequence of this proposed process is that predictions of future behavior will be unrealistically
optimistic (e.g., a likelihood of donating blood that is too high).
Though studied extensively since Wason‘s (1971) initial demonstrations, very little is
known about how to reduce selective hypothesis testing in situations where judgments are made
quickly. That is, while there is an emerging consensus that selective hypothesis testing can be
exacerbated by adding time pressure or increasing cognitive load (Cronley et al. 2005; Smith et
al. 2007), we know of no empirical evidence indicating that selective hypothesis testing can be
turned off. Since one of our primary objectives is to explore whether consumers can be led to
make more realistic predictions of future behavior, we required a different approach.
Specifically, we examine whether we can get individuals to think more realistically about future
behavior not by turning off selective hypothesis testing, but instead by changing the hypothesis
they are testing. To this end, we developed the two-condition design below.
Research Overview
Participants in the standard request condition answer a focal question of interest
pertaining to an absolute estimate of a future behavior (e.g., ―How many times will you exercise
next month?‖). Before answering this focal question, participants in the ideal-first condition
provide an idealistic estimate (e.g., ―In an ideal world, how many times would you exercise next
month?‖). This ―ideal world‖ question serves two purposes. First, since responses to it are by
definition idealistic, we can use them to determine if standard condition responses are idealistic.
That is, if optimistic predictions of future behavior stem from selective testing of an idealistic
hypothesis, then estimates made by individuals who assumed things would be ideal should be
similar to standard condition estimates. Second, answering the ideal world question should make
salient that the real world is not ideal. This should cause individuals in the ideal-first condition to
adopt and test a more realistic hypothesis when contemplating the focal question. As such, when
compared to individuals who do not answer the ideal world question, those who do should
provide more realistic estimates of future behavior, report more realistic thoughts, and potentially
make improved downstream judgments.
It is worth noting that getting individuals to be realistic is not as easy as it might seem.
There is ample evidence that individuals are either unwilling or unable to let go of idealistic self-
assessments. For example, Kruger and Gilovich (2004) found that individuals reduced self
ratings by only a small amount (leaving them still unrealistically optimistic) when they were told
to base their ―ratings exclusively on overt behavior, observable actions, or tangible
accomplishments‖ and to ignore ―other components of the trait such as good intentions, plans for
the future, or unfulfilled potential.‖ Indeed, even when individuals can identify optimism in an
estimate, they are unwilling to adjust for it (Soll, Larrick, and Zhu 2006).
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In what follows, we examine these predictions for several behaviors. Study 1 combines
three experiments that explore estimates of blood donation likelihood, exercise frequency and
savings discipline. Study 2 examines a downstream consequence of beliefs about future exercise
behaviors, namely willingness to pay for a treadmill. Study 3 concerns predictions of product
usage and explores whether the effect of prior consideration of ideal behavior is moderated by
expertise. Finally, study 4 explores the planning fallacy and whether more realistic predictions
come at the cost of poorer performance.
STUDY 1: PREDICTING CONSEQUENTIAL BEHAVIORS
This first study explores the estimation of future behavior in the domains of blood
donation, exercise frequency, and savings discipline. It consists of three experiments (and some
replicates), each of which were run separately. However, they are reported together to avoid
repetition in the description both of their common method and in the pattern of results.
Method
Participants were 76 undergraduates (in the blood donation experiment), 176 adult
attendees at a dance performance (in the exercise experiment), and 35 undergraduates (in the
savings experiment). The same basic design applied in each experiment. Participants were
randomly assigned to either the standard request or ideal-first condition and thus answered just
the focal question or the ideal world and focal question, respectively. In each case, participants
read a brief scenario introduction before proceeding to the questions of interest. The specific
questions asked in each domain are shown in table 1. In addition to answering questions about
their own behavior, those in the blood donation experiment estimated peer donation likelihood
after stating their own intent. In the exercise experiment, a control group estimated how many
times the typical dance performance attendee would exercise per week over the next month.
These peer estimates give us a benchmark against which to assess optimism in self estimates.
Insert table 1 about here
Results
The data from all three experiments (see table 2) reveal a consistent pattern. Specifically,
there was no difference between focal question estimates in the standard request condition and
ideal-world estimates. This is consistent with the idea that participants in the standard condition
selectively tested a hypothesis of ideal behavior, resulting in idealized estimates. It was also the
case that in both the exercise and blood donation experiments (where peer estimates were
collected) focal estimates in the standard request condition were higher than estimates of peer
performance. These data are indicative of unrealistic optimism.
Insert table 2 about here
Additionally, in every domain focal question estimates by participants in the ideal-first
condition were lower than focal question estimates in the standard condition, and they did not
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differ from peer estimates in the two domains where peer estimates were collected (i.e., blood
donation and exercise). In other words, those who initially estimated their ideal world behavior
gave responses to the focal question that were less optimistic and nearer to their estimates of peer
performance, than did those who just answered the focal question.
Replicate Experiments
To better understand the process underlying the data above, we ran several follow follow-
up experiments. These replicates were identical to the experiments above, except as noted. They
are reported in summary form to avoid repetition in description of common methods.
Dual Response Experiment. This first replicate was designed to address the possibility
that participants in the ideal-first condition gave more realistic focal question estimates because
answering two questions caused them to think more deeply. To examine this issue, we replicated
the blood donation experiment with an additional condition in which participants estimated their
blood donation likelihood (0-100%) before reading the following: ―Previous research has shown
that people are not always accurate when first asked for an estimate. Please take a few moments
to consider again your donation likelihood.‖ Participants then made a second donation likelihood
estimate. The results ruled out a dual response explanation. While focal estimates in the ideal-
first condition (M = 40%) were reliably lower than in the standard condition (M = 71%, t(25) =
2.20, p < .04), estimates in the dual response condition were identical (M = 70% for both).
Explicit Instruction Experiment. This replicate examined whether an explicit instruction
to avoid idealistic predictions would produce more realistic responses. To this end, we replicated
the exercise experiment, and added an additional explicit instruction condition in which
participants were instructed, ―Please do not provide an idealistic prediction, but rather the most
realistic prediction of your behavior that you can.‖ While focal estimates in the ideal-first
condition (M = 2.39) were lower than in the standard condition (M = 3.35), estimates in the
explicit instruction condition were significantly higher than standard condition estimates (M =
4.37, t(66) = 2.34, p < .05). This is a striking example of how difficult it can be to attenuate
unrealistic optimism. That is, rather than producing realistic estimates, the explicit instruction to
avoid idealistic estimates backfired, yielding higher estimates that appeared likely to be more
unrealistically optimistic.
Decisiveness and Selective Hypothesis Testing. It is worth noting that even though we
found no statistically significant difference between ideal world and standard estimates in the
studies above, there is a directional pattern in which standard estimates are slightly more realistic
than ideal world estimates. Thus, it is possible that some individuals in the standard conditions
above tested both the ideal behavior hypothesis and a more realistic one. Consistent with this
idea of heterogeneity in testing, there is evidence that consumers who are low in need for
cognitive closure are more likely to test multiple hypotheses (Cronley et al. 2005; Kardes et al.
2004). Accordingly, we reasoned the decisiveness factor of Webster and Kruglanski‘s (1994)
need for cognitive closure scale (e.g., ―I usually make important decisions quickly and
confidently‖) would be a good proxy for the tendency to test multiple hypotheses in behavioral
predictions. That is, those low in decisiveness should be more likely to test multiple hypotheses,
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including some that are realistic, when answering the standard question. Hence, we expected that
individuals low in decisiveness, would provide standard estimates that were farther from their
ideal world estimates, than would their high decisiveness counterparts. To test this prediction, 25
individuals estimated how often they would exercise over the next two weeks. Two weeks later,
these same individuals estimated how many times they would exercise over the following two
weeks in an ideal world. Two weeks later, these individuals answered the seven questions that
form the decisiveness factor of the need for cognitive closure scale.
We expected that the difference between ideal world estimates and standard condition
estimates would increase as decisiveness decreased. That is, those who are most likely to
consider multiple hypotheses when contemplating the standard question (i.e., those low in
decisiveness) should give standard estimates that are farthest from their ideal estimates. The data
supported this hypothesis. Specifically, the correlation between decisiveness and the difference
measure was significant and negative (r = -.367, p < .05). These data provide support for the idea
that standard condition estimates stem from a process of selective hypothesis testing. Namely,
greater decisiveness (which should be associated with a greater tendency toward testing a single
hypothesis) was associated with less divergence between standard and ideal world estimates.
Alternative Wording and Accuracy of Exercise Estimates. The fourth replicate had two
purposes. First, we sought to determine whether an alternative wording of the ideal world
question would produce results similar to those above. Second, we wanted to determine if focal
question responses of ideal-first participants were more accurate. All participants (n = 56)
estimated how many times they would exercise over the next two weeks (M = 4.48). Two weeks
later, participants reported how often they had exercised (M = 3.38, t(105) = 1.90, p = .06). This
difference is consistent with the same unrealistic optimism seen the experiments above, except
that the benchmark is actual performance, not estimates of peer performance. The day after
reporting actual exercise frequency for the past two weeks, participants estimated how often they
would exercise in the next two weeks. Half of the participants did so after answering a variant of
the ideal world question designed to remove all possible constraints that might impede one‘s
ability to exercise (e.g., constraints on time, motivation, and physical ability). The question was
worded as follows, ―If there were no constraints on your time, motivation, and physical ability,
how many times would you exercise over the next two weeks?‖ Because this variant removed all
constraints, we expected participants would answer it with extremely high estimates, which they
did (M = 10.26). Nevertheless, we expected that answering this question would cause
respondents to realize that the world has constraints, which would lead them to test a more
realistic hypothesis when answering the focal question.
Participants in the standard condition estimated that they would exercise 4.93 times, an
estimate that was significantly greater than their actual exercise frequency over the previous two
weeks (t(82) = 2.17, p < .05). Thus, it seems that these participants did not use recent exercise
failures to update their exercise estimates. In contrast, participants in the no constraint condition
estimated they would exercise just 3.70 times, an estimate that was not different from actual
exercise reports for the preceding two weeks (t(80) = 0.47, p > .60).
From these data, we draw two conclusions. First, we have preliminary evidence that post-
ideal responses do not just appear more realistic, but are genuinely more reflective of actual
behavior. That is, if participants‘ self-reported exercise incidence (of three times per two weeks)
is an accurate reflection of their actual behavior, then we can conclude that getting participants to
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initially consider an extremely optimistic hypothesis led to exercise estimates that were
genuinely more accurate. Second, the effect of the ideal world question (in the experiments
above) does not depend on the use of the phrase ―in an ideal world‖. We reach this conclusion
because the alternative wording that emphasized the lack of constraints had a similar effect on
subsequent responses to the focal question. Note, however, that the ideal world question is
unique in that it produces estimates that are equal to standard condition estimates and gives rise
to focal question estimates that are more realistic. As such, in all subsequent studies, we use the
―in an ideal world‖ phrase for the initial question in the ideal-first condition.
Discussion
The data above are consistent with several of the predictions that stem from a selective
hypothesis testing perspective on unrealistic optimism. First, we repeatedly observed that ideal-
world behavioral estimates do not differ from standard estimates. This is, consistent with the idea
that participants in the standard condition are selectively testing a hypothesis of ideal behavior.
Second, answering the ideal world question before answering the focal question caused
participants to give more realistic estimates, which is consistent with their having tested a more
realistic hypothesis. Third, the first two replicates ruled out a simple dual response explanation
and also demonstrated that a direct request to provide realistic estimates was entirely ineffective
in extracting realistic estimates. This suggests that correction does not follow simply from a
request to correct, but rather that it requires an approach that acknowledges the underlying
process and works within it. Fourth, consistent with prior research that finds selective hypothesis
testing is most prevalent among those high in need for closure, the third replicate revealed that
those high in decisiveness gave standard condition estimates that were most similar to their ideal
world estimates. Finally, the last replicate showed that realistic estimates obtained when the ideal
world question was replaced by one that asked for an estimate assuming no physical, time, or
motivational constraints. Though this question produced unconstrained estimates that were more
extreme than the ideal world question, it gave rise to focal question estimates that were more
realistic and accurate. Thus, it is not necessary to direct attention to the ideal world hypothesis to
obtain realistic estimates, but rather it is sufficient to direct attention to a hypothesis that is
unrealistically optimistic.
STUDY 2: DOWNSTREAM CONSEQUENCES
An important potential consequence of being overly optimistic about one‘s future
behavior is that such optimistic beliefs may contribute to overbuying of products that see little
use (Morris and Bronson 1970). Indeed, consumers who are asked why they fail to use unused
products typically cite reasons relating to a mismatch between their aspirations for product use
and reality (Trocchia and Janda 2002). Not only does health and fitness equipment fit the
stereotype for unused products, but evidence suggests that this category is rife with overbuying
(Trocchia and Janda 2002).
The primary theoretical purpose of this study was to examine whether individuals in the
ideal-first condition truly change their thinking when they answer the focal question. If they do
not actually believe the more realistic estimates they report, then these estimates should not
influence downstream decisions. However, if the post-ideal estimates are genuinely conceived,
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then individuals should use them when making decisions for which the estimates are relevant
inputs. For example, if estimates of exercise are made more realistic (i.e., more sober) by
answering the ideal world question, then willingness to pay for exercise equipment should fall.
Methodologically, this study follows the exercise experiments above, with one change.
After answering the focal exercise estimation question participants in both conditions reported
their willingness to pay for a new treadmill. We expect that participants who estimate their
exercise frequency after answering the ideal world question will report lower willingness to pay
for a treadmill than participants who estimate exercise frequency in the standard condition.
Method
Participants were 118 undergraduate students, each of whom was randomly assigned to
either the standard or ideal-first exercise condition from study 1. After estimating their exercise,
they reported willingness to pay for a treadmill.
Results
To begin we verified that exercise estimates in the standard condition (M = 3.16) were
higher than focal question estimates in the ideal-first condition (M = 2.47; t(116) = 2.20, p < .05).
Thus, the effect that the ideal world question has on answers to the focal question (i.e., making
them more realistic) was replicated here. Of greater interest, participants in the ideal-first
condition reported a lower willingness to pay for the treadmill (M = $480) than participants in
the standard condition (M = $610; t(116) = 2.00, p < .05). Thus, it appears that exercise estimates
were not just arbitrary numbers that our participants produced, but they are capable of being used
as meaningful inputs into related downstream decisions.
Discussion
A remaining question is whether answering the ideal world question causes everyone to
adjust their estimates toward the more pessimistic end of the response set. If so, then those who
would have given realistic estimates without the intervention might give overly pessimistic
estimates. Note, however, that the selective hypothesis testing account predicts that the ideal
world question will cause only those consumers who would default to an idealistic hypothesis to
adjust their behavioral estimates. In other words, estimates of those who would default to a
realistic hypothesis in the standard condition should not be influenced by the ideal world
question. As such, we expect that answering the ideal world question will not uniformly
influence all consumers. One goal of the next study is to explore this issue.
STUDY 3: PREDICTING PRODUCT USAGE AND WILLINGNESS TO PAY
This study has two goals. First, it examines whether the effects above extend to
predictions of product usage (i.e., how many songs participants predict they would load onto a
new iPod). If so, then this work might have much to say about helping consumers avoid
overbuying in a variety of domains. We examine the issue of overbuying by collecting
willingness to pay for a new 60GB iPod after iPod usage estimates are collected.
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Our second goal was to further test our claim that selective hypothesis testing contributes
to unrealistically optimistic predictions of future behavior. Following previous research that has
found that experts are less likely (relative to novices) to exhibit behavior that is consistent with
selective hypothesis testing (Posavac, Fitzsimons, Kardes, and Sanbonmatsu 2005), we examine
product expertise as a potential moderator. We use iPod ownership as a proxy for expertise
because owners should be more knowledgeable about their likely capacity utilization of an iPod.
This knowledge comes with a better understanding of the constraints associated with iPod
utilization (e.g., the time and effort required to load songs onto the iPod). We expect experts will
be less likely to adopt ideal capacity utilization as their tentative hypothesis when estimating
their iPod utilization. As such, standard condition estimates by experts should be more realistic
(i.e., lower) than ideal-world estimates by experts. Additionally, focal question estimates by
experts should not differ across conditions. In contrast, novices should display the same pattern
we have seen in every experiment so far. To the extent that iPod valuation is contingent on
capacity utilization, novices should report lower willingness to pay for an iPod in the ideal-first
condition than in the standard condition, while experts should give similar estimates in both.
Such a pattern would reveal whether answering the ideal world question causes all consumers to
reduce their willingness to pay for a product or whether it works only where appropriate.
Method
This study employed a two (iPod expertise: own versus do not own) by two (request
condition: ideal-first versus standard) between subjects design, with song storage and willingness
to pay for a new iPod as dependent variables. Participants were 227 undergraduate and
postgraduate students. Nine surveys were completed incorrectly, leaving 218 participants on
which all analyses were performed. Each participant saw a picture of an iPod and read the text
below.
At just over half an inch thick, the iPod fits comfortably in the palm of your hand and
slips easily into your pocket and your life. Merely 5.6 ounces, it weighs less than two
compact disks, and even many cell phones. And yet the iPod gives you a huge 60GB hard
drive big enough to hold 15,000 songs.
Participants in the ideal-first condition answered the two-questions below, and those in the
standard condition answered just the second question.
In an ideal world, how many songs would be loaded on your iPod at any time?
How many songs would be loaded on your iPod at any time?
Participants in both conditions were then told to assume they did not own an iPod and to report
their willingness to pay for a 60GB model in response to the following question, ―How much
would you be willing to pay for this iPod?‖ Open-ended responses were recorded in dollars.
Finally, to measure expertise, participants were asked if they currently owned an iPod.
Results
For non-owners (n = 67), song storage estimates were higher in the standard request
condition (M = 4,854) than in the ideal-first condition (M = 1,993; t(63) = 2.76, p < .01).
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Furthermore, consistent with the emerging pattern from the studies to date, ideal world estimates
in the ideal-first condition (M = 4,680) did not differ from standard condition estimates (p > .9).
In contrast, for iPod owners (n = 151), ideal world estimates in the ideal-first condition (M =
7,676) were dramatically higher than standard condition estimates (M = 4,184; t(151) = 4.00, p
<.01). Additionally, focal estimates by iPod owners in the ideal-first condition (M = 3,469) did
not differ from standard condition estimates (t(151) = 1.04, p = .30). Both of these findings
suggest that the song storage estimates by iPod owners were less affected by selective hypothesis
testing of ideal usage. That is, because iPod owners are more aware of the constraints associated
with iPod utilization (e.g. costs of loading songs onto the iPod), they were less likely to default to
an ideal hypothesis in the standard condition.
Next we examined the willingness to pay estimates. Figure 1 plots willingness to pay by
condition. A two-way ANOVA of willingness to pay yielded a main effect of ownership (F(1,
214) = 22.27, p < .005), a marginal main effect of request condition (F(1, 120) = 3.33, p < .07),
and an ownership by request condition interaction (F(1, 214) = 4.40, p < .04). We conducted
planned contrasts to expose the nature of the interaction. As expected, non-owners in the ideal-
first condition reported a lower willingness to pay (M = $129) than non-owners in the standard
condition (M = $188; F(1, 214) = 5.42, p < .03). For iPod owners, willingness to pay in the
ideal-first condition (M = $231) did not differ from that in the standard condition (M = $227; p >
0.9). As with iPod usage, the higher willingness to pay by iPod owners probably reflects greater
preference for the iPod in general. It is worth noting that this difference in average willingness to
pay is inconsistent with the notion that the null effect for iPod owners was due to a floor effect
(i.e., that they were unwilling to pay anything because they already owned one).
Insert figure 1 about here.
Discussion
In this study we explored a situation where the focal question required a prediction of
how fully one would use the capacity of a specific product (i.e., iPod capacity utilization).
Results indicated that whereas ideal-world and standard estimates were similar for novices
(consistent with prior studies), they were dramatically different for experts, with the ideal-world
estimate being considerably higher. Furthermore, prior consideration of ideal usage did not
influence focal question usage estimates for experts, but had the expected effect on estimates of
novices. Both findings are consistent with the idea that experts are less likely to default to
adopting an ideal usage hypothesis and thus further support our selective hypothesis testing case.
These findings also suggest that consumers who lack experience with a product are most
at risk of making idealized future usage predictions, and thus are most at risk of making ill
advised purchases. Though troubling, these data also offer hope. Namely, consumers who
initially consider their ideal product usage, subsequently think more realistically about their
likely usage. For example, if the novice data above held in an Apple store, then it is possible that
a consumer who used the ideal world question on herself would realize that trading down from a
60GB to a 20GB iPod would be optimal.
STUDY 4: THE PLANNING FALLACY
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People routinely underestimate how long it will take them to finish tasks. This ―planning
fallacy‖ has been documented in everything from long-term construction projects to much briefer
laboratory tasks (Buehler, Griffin, and Ross 1994; Kahneman and Tversky 1979). The tendency
to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task has potential consequences both for
consumers themselves and for those who rely on their estimates. Examples of the former include
lost savings from failing to return rebates on time, choosing a high interest/high benefit credit
based on the optimistic expectation that bills will be paid on time, and the cost associated with
adjusting one‘s activities to address overcommitment. With respect to consequences for others,
there are numerous examples where the failure to complete a particular task on schedule causes
delays in related projects that can result in cascading inefficiencies in resource allocation.
This study consists of two related experiments. The primary goal of the first experiment
(henceforth described as the ―planning accuracy‖ experiment) was to ascertain if answering the
ideal world question would cause participants to render longer and more accurate estimates of
task completion. A second goal was to investigate if predicting longer completion times
undermines actual task completion. That is, would realistic estimates give rise to longer actual
completion times or would such estimates have no effect on task completion. The goal of the
second experiment (henceforth described as the ―planning thoughts‖ experiment) was to examine
whether participants in the ideal-first condition thought more realistically when answering the
focal question. To examine this question, we collected retrospective thought listings. Participants
in both experiments estimated when they would complete a task (watching a DVD for a class
project or completing a hypothetical leisure time report). In both cases we expected participants
in the ideal-first condition would provide longer completion time estimates when answering the
focal question.
Planning Accuracy Experiment
Method. Participants in this experiment were 95 executive MBA students who
participated as part of an in-class exercise. They were given a DVD that contained a 1-hour focus
group discussion, which they had to watch as a first step to completing a group project that was
due in two weeks. In the same class in which the DVDs were distributed, participants predicted
when they would watch the DVD. Half of the participants did so after estimating when they
would ideally watch the DVD, ―In an ideal world, when would you finish watching the DVD?‖
The other half simply estimated when they would watch the DVD. Actual task completion times
were collected two weeks later, with all participants answering the following question, ―When
did you watch the DVD?‖. Participants reported dates that were translated into the number of
days from the day on which the DVD was distributed. Thus, the minimum possible value was 0
(watched it on the same day it was received) and the maximum value was less than 14 (watched
it the day the assignment was due).
Results. Average completion time estimates and average actual completion times are
presented in the left data column of table 3. As in earlier studies, there was no difference
between standard and ideal world estimates. However, focal question estimates in the ideal-first
condition were significantly longer than those of participants in the standard condition. Of
greater importance, the average completion time estimates for those in the ideal-first condition
(M = 4.43 days) did not differ from how long participants actually took to watch the DVD (M =
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13
4.45 days). In other words, participants in the ideal-first condition gave estimates that were on
average objectively accurate.
Insert table 3 about here.
Next, we considered whether participants in the ideal-first condition (who gave longer
predictions of completion time) took longer to watch the DVD than participants in the standard
condition. We observed no evidence of this; the actual time to watch the DVD did not differ
between the ideal-first and standard conditions (t(93) = 1.02, p > .30). This suggests that
providing more realistic completion time estimates did not undermine actual performance of
ideal-first participants.
Planning Thoughts Experiment
Method. Participants were 56 students who were told that the purpose of the experiment
was to test materials for research in which participants would have to write a report on how they
spent their leisure time for a specific day. They were informed that they would not actually have
to write the report, but that they should complete all materials and think about the report writing
task exactly as if they had to do so. The materials stated that the leisure report could pertain to
any day from the upcoming week. Instructions also stated that since memory fades quickly, the
report needed to be written within five days of the day they chose to chronicle.
Participants were randomly assigned to either the standard or ideal-first condition and
made completion time predictions as follows. Those in the ideal-first condition answered both of
the questions below, while those in the standard condition answered just the second question.
In an ideal world, when would you expect to complete the report?
When do you expect to complete the report?
After this, participants were asked to describe the major thoughts they had as they answered the
focal question.
Results. Completion time estimates in this experiment were derived by subtracting the
date they predicted they would write the report from the earliest possible day they could write the
report. Average completion times appear in the right data column of table 3. These data reveal
the same pattern as we‘ve seen routinely in our studies (i.e., no difference between standard and
ideal world estimates and post-ideal estimates that are more realistic than standard condition
estimates). Next, we examined the thought listing data.
We reasoned that the primary reasons for completing a class project more slowly than
expected would pertain to procrastination and weak motivation (i.e. putting it off until the last
minute). Thus, if participants in the ideal-first condition were thinking more realistically,
thoughts relating to procrastination and/or weak motivation should be more accessible. Hence,
thought listings were coded by two independent coders for mention of either procrastination or
weak motivation as reasons contributing to the report completion estimate. Agreement between
the raters was high (r = .88) and disagreements were resolved through discussion.
Analysis revealed that a greater percentage of participants in the ideal-first condition
mentioned procrastination or weak motivation as an issue involved with project completion (M =
33%) than did individuals in the standard request condition (M = 7%, χ2 = 5.54, p < .03). That is,
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those in the ideal-first condition engaged in more realistic thinking when formulating their
completion time estimates than participants in the standard condition. This result is interesting in
its own right since a significant body of research suggests individuals are loath to admit
volitional responsibility for negative outcomes. For example, research on post decision
counterfactuals suggests that individuals would rather construct external reasons for poor
performance than assign any personal liability (Gilbert at al. 2004).
To explore the role of these thoughts more fully, we performed a mediation analysis
following Baron and Kenny (1986). Figure 2 displays the regression coefficients for the key
relationships in this analysis. There was a significant relationship between question condition
and reported procrastination thoughts (a), question condition and participants‘ estimated report
completion time (b), and procrastination thoughts and estimated report completion time (c). The
relationship between question condition and estimated report completion time was not significant
when controlling for procrastination thoughts (d), and the reduction in the beta versus the model
without the mediator is significant by a Sobel test (z = 1.95, p = .05). Thus, there is evidence that
the effect of condition on completion time estimates was mediated by realistic thoughts.
Insert figure 2 about here
Discussion
The data from these two experiments suggest that initially estimating ideal task
completion time results in subsequent completion estimates that are more accurate and that the
process of generating those estimates is governed by more realistic thinking, not just a simple
adjustment process. Put differently, both the estimates themselves, and the thought listings,
strongly suggested that answering the ideal world question caused participants to think more
realistically when answering the focal question.
GENERAL DISCUSSION
Across a multitude of studies and replicates we consistently found that predictions of
future behavior were nearly identical to those made by individuals who were explicitly instructed
to give estimates assuming conditions would be ideal. We also found that individuals who first
answered the ―ideal world‖ question subsequently provided more realistic estimates of future
behavior (i.e., gave estimates that did not differ from peer estimates or from actual behavior).
Though these individuals reported more realistic thoughts, we found no evidence that this
realistic thinking undermined actual performance. These findings have important implications
for theories of unrealistic optimism and consumer decision making.
Theoretical Contributions
Our data contribute to the unrealistic optimism literature in several ways. First, the
totality of our data suggests that selective hypothesis testing contributes to unrealistic optimism.
The evidence to support this is as follows. As noted above, standard estimates were routinely as
high as ideal-world estimates. An explanation for this similarity is that standard estimates are
constructed around a hypothesis of ideal behavior. Moreover, if unrealistic optimism derives
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from selective testing of an ideal hypothesis, then it should be possible to ameliorate it by getting
individuals to move away from their ideal hypothesis. We believe this is precisely the effect that
answering the ideal world question had on our participants. Specifically, participants who
initially answered the ideal world question subsequently predicted future behaviors that did not
differ from estimates of peer behavior, and were more inline with actual future behavior.
Additionally, consistent with previous work (Kardes et al. 2004), we found that greater
decisiveness was associated with smaller differences in standard and ideal world estimates.
Finally, the expertise moderation results in study 3 are consistent with prior work that finds
experts are less likely to engage in selectively hypothesis testing (Posavac et al. 2005).
Another contribution, albeit subtle, stems from the result that standard estimates were
often indistinguishable from ideal estimates. This by itself suggests a more nuanced view of
unrealistic optimism. Specifically, while it is a common finding that individuals are too
optimistic in predictions of their future behavior, the current work reveals that behavioral
predictions are not simply too high, but rather often line up with perceptions of ideal behavior.
Third, we note that recent research in the areas of leader-driven primacy and selective
hypothesis testing (Bond et al. 2007; Carlson, Meloy, and Russo 2006; Posavac et al. 2004) has
made great strides in identifying processes whereby initial leanings or hypotheses become
reinforced over time, leading ultimately to stronger preferences or views than originally existed.
The current research adds to this literature on selective hypothesis testing by extending our
understanding of the types of hypotheses individuals test. That is, when estimating future
behavior they appear to test the hypothesis that they will act in an idealistic fashion.
A fourth theoretical contribution of this work is that our findings lend support to biased
retrieval accounts of unrealistic optimism. These accounts contrast with biased encoding views
which contend that many forms of self-favoritism result from the selective integration of self-
favoring information into memory (Baumeister and Cairns 1992). The current data are difficult
to reconcile with biased encoding because the ideal world question did not give participants
information about themselves that they did not already possess.
A final contribution to the literature on unrealistic optimism comes from the planning
accuracy study (see study 4). Recall that compared to participants in the standard condition,
participants who predicted their completion times after answering the ideal world question gave
longer and more accurate completion estimates, but they did not take any longer to actually
complete the task. This suggests that the ideal world approach for getting people to adopt a more
realistic hypothesis does not necessarily undermine performance. This result is noteworthy, as it
contributes to the ongoing debate about the benefits and costs of unrealistic optimism (Taylor
and Brown 1988), which we discuss in greater detail below.
Implications for Consumer Decision Making
Debiasing Estimates of Consumer Behavior. When viewed as a technique for helping
consumers think more realistically about their future behavior, the approach of having consumers
initially consider their ideal behavior has substantial appeal. Consider for example that most
methods for inducing realistic estimates implicitly direct individuals to move their estimates in a
particular direction (e.g. Hoch 1985; Lord, Lepper and Preston 1984). These consider the
opposite approaches require that the administrator know the direction and magnitude of the bias
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16
in advance. Moreover, they implore adjustment by all members of the population. As such, they
risk creating an opposite bias in those who would not otherwise be unrealistically optimistic.
As a pure debiasing technique the ideal world approach does not share these
shortcomings. Since each individual‘s notion of ideal is different, it is not necessary to know the
size or even the direction of a bias for the technique to work. Moreover, it has the potential to
work on both sides of a problem at once. Consider two college-aged men, one who wants to gain
muscle weight, and one who wants to lose weight. When asked, ―In an ideal world, how much
would you weigh in two months?‖ they will produce different answers, with one producing an
answer that is likely to be higher and the other producing an answer that is likely to be lower
than their current weights, respectively. When subsequently asked ―How much will you weigh in
two months?‖ they should each give answers that are more realistic than they would otherwise,
presumably closer to their current weight. Thus, even without knowing in which direction a
specific person is likely to bias their forecast, it should be possible to elicit more realistic
estimates by having them first estimate their ideal.
Consequences for Decision Quality. While the primary purpose of our research was to
explore a selective accessibility explanation for unrealistic optimism, our findings may have
implications for the quality of consumer decisions. In particular, it is possible that getting
consumers to think more realistically will influence the quality of their decisions.
Research relevant to this question can be found in a number of literatures. First, a large
body of research in psychology argues that optimism actually has positive consequences for
mental health and/or individual welfare (Peterson 1988; Scheier et al. 1989; Weisse 1992). Most
of this research is based on the finding that high or exaggerated expectations often have a self
fulfilling property, with illusory optimism strengthening motivation and aspirations, leading
ultimately to superior performance (Taylor and Brown 1988). The evidence for this is
particularly strong in health domains. For example, Scheier et al. (1989) observed that optimistic
heart by-pass patients made substantially superior recoveries, compared to their less optimistic
peers. In sum, there is evidence that unrealistic optimism can enable people to attain higher
outcomes than they would achieve if they were more realistic.
Notwithstanding this evidence for positive health outcomes, however, a significant body
of research, primarily in managerial literatures, argues that optimistic expectancies and wishful
thinking can also lead to negative consequences in some situations. For example, it has been
argued that unrealistic optimism can lead to the pursuit of unrealistic goals (Kahneman and
Lovallo 1993), distraction from the formation of implementation plans (Oettingen 1996), poor
decision making (Baumeister 1989), poor negotiating (Neale and Bazerman 1985), and the
excessive consumption of vice products (Kahn and Dhar 2007).
The possibility of unrealistic optimism having both positive and negative consequences
leaves the welfare picture somewhat muddied. That is, while consumers who think more
realistically may make better decisions in the present, realistic thinking may also undermine
actual future behavior. Hence, an important area for future research is to understand when and
how future behavior is influenced by expectations of future behavior.
One way to frame the issue is in terms of goals. Specifically, prior research suggests that
consumers who construct behavioral intentions sometimes treat these intentions as goals (Levav
and Fitzsimons 2007; Alexander, Lynch and Wang 2008). Since goals are motivating,
expectations of future behavior that are treated as goals should be motivating. If so, then a key
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issue in knowing whether the induction of realistic expectations will undermine performance is
whether consumers will treat their expectations as goals. Since abstract expectations are less
goal-like (and less motivating) than concrete ones (Levav and Fitzsimons 2007), the crux of this
issue might reside in the extent to which expectations are represented abstractly or concretely.
For example, one possibility is that post-ideal estimates may be built from more concrete
representations of the future, and thus might actually be more goal-like than the more abstract
standard estimates. Thus its is far from clear what the net impact on motivation will be, as even
though post-ideal estimates are less lofty than standard estimates, which may make them less
motivating, they may also be more goal like, which may increase motivation.
What is clear is that it is not possible to provide a definitive answer as to how increased
realism might impact consumer welfare without a better understanding of how behavioral
expectancies influence actual behavior. As such, future research might focus on identifying the
conditions under which performance is degraded by more realistic estimates and the conditions
where it is not.
Ruling Out Demand
Experimental demand (Shimp, Hyatt, and Snyder 1991) is a concern whenever
participants might be able to guess the research hypothesis. Since the similarity between ideal
world and standard estimates is a between condition result, the data for which demand is most a
concern are the post-ideal estimates. That said, it is hard to make the case for a parsimonious
demand account of the post-ideal data that explains all of our studies.
First, it is not clear why participants would conclude that they should contrast from their
ideal world estimates. Indeed, another possibility is that ideal-first participants would anchor on
their ideal world estimates, which would eventually yield post-ideal estimates that were too
optimistic. Second, even if demand does lead participants to adjust in the hypothesized direction,
ideal-first participants did more than simply adjust from their ideal world estimates. They gave
focal question responses that (a) were indistinguishable both from their own peer estimates
(study 1, blood donation) and from peer estimates of a control group (study 1, exercise); (b) were
not different from actual recent behavior (study 1, third replicate); and (c) did not differ from
actual future behavior (study 4, accuracy study). Third, in a study where participants did not need
to infer the wishes of the experimenters (i.e., where participants were told to avoid ideal
estimates and to provide a realistic ones), participants did not give realistic estimates. If
experimental demand were at work in our studies, we should have seen very realistic estimates in
this replicate. Fourth, demand accounts do not generally extend beyond the measure of interest.
However, thought listings from study 4, and the downstream willingness to pay estimates in
studies 2 and 3 indicate that the effect of answering an ideal world question extended beyond the
post-ideal focal question responses. Finally, demand is inconsistent with the expertise results in
study 3. In particular, it is highly unlikely that participants could intuit on, and then deliver (in a
between subjects design) the pattern of results which we observed.
Conclusion
Consistent with theories of self determination (e.g., Deci and Ryan 1985), we find that
the key to helping consumers make realistic predictions is helping them to do so of their own
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18
accord. Namely, our studies reveal that realistic predictions do not follow from requests to be
realistic, but rather from an approach that works within the underlying process of selective
hypothesis testing. In other words, the key to more realistic predictions of future behavior lies
not in exhorting consumers to ignore the ideal, but in getting them to acknowledge it. Those who
did so of their own accord abandoned their idealistic expectations and embraced realistic ones.
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19
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Wills, Thomas A. (1981), ―Downward Comparison Principles in Social Psychology,‖
Psychological Bulletin, 90 (2), 245-71.
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22
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23
TABLE 1
BEHAVIOR PREDICTION QUESTIONSSTUDY 1
Experiments
Questions
Response Scale
Blood
Donation
In an ideal world would you donate blood?
Will you donate blood?
What percent of your peers will donate blood?
yes/no
yes/no
0-100%
Exercise
Frequency
In an ideal world, how many times per week (on average) would
you exercise in the next month?
How many times per week (on average) will you exercise in the
next month?
How many times per week (on average) will the typical attendee at
this dance performance exercise?*
open-ended responses for
all three questions
Saving
Discipline
In an ideal world, how disciplined would you be about saving for
retirement over the course of your career?
How disciplined will you be about saving for retirement over the
course of your career?
11-point scale for both
(1 = not very disciplined,
11 = very disciplined)
* This question was answered by a control group.
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24
TABLE 2
BEHAVIORAL PREDICTIONS BY CONDITIONSTUDY 1
Blood Donation
Likelihood
Savings Discipline
(1-11)
Focal Estimates
Standard Condition
Ideal-first Condition
69.8%ae
44.1%a
6.9d
5.3d
Peer Estimate
45.4%*e
n/a
Ideal World Estimate
69.7%
7.1
a, b, c significantly different, p < .05
d marginal difference, p < .06
e no overlap in 95% confidence intervals (peer estimate continuous, self estimate binary)
* The estimated percentage of peers who would donate blood in the ideal-first condition (M =
41.4%) did not differ from that made by participants in the standard response condition (M =
48.5%; t(74) = 1.37, p > .17); hence a weighted average is reported.
Ideal world estimates did not differ from standard condition estimates (all three p > 0.4)
TABLE 3
ESTIMATED TASK COMPLETION TIMESSTUDY 4
Planning Accuracy
Study
(watch DVD)
Completion Time Estimates
Standard Condition
Ideal-First Condition
3.04 daysad
4.43 daysae
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Actual Completion Time
4.45 dayse
Ideal World Estimate
2.74 days d
a, b significantly different, p < .05
c marginal difference, p < .09
d no difference, p > .4
e no difference, p > .9
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26
FIGURE LEGEND
FIGURE 1
IPOD WTP FOR OWNERS AND NON-OWNERS BY QUESTION CONDITIONSTUDY 3
FIGURE 2
PROCRASTINATION RELATED THOUGHTS MEDIATE ATTENUATION OF THE
PLANNING FALLACYSTUDY 4
FIGURE 1
IPOD WTP FOR OWNERS AND NON-OWNERS BY QUESTION CONDITIONSTUDY 3
0
50
100
150
200
250
Owners Non-owners
Standard Ideal-first
iPod $ WTP
27
FIGURE 2
PROCRASTINATION RELATED THOUGHTS MEDIATE ATTENUATION OF THE
PLANNING FALLACYSTUDY 4
question
condition
procrastination
thoughts
predicted
time to
write report
(a)
(b)
(c)
(d)
-2.07 (p < .02)
1.99 (p < .01)
1.00 (p < .03)
0.51 (p = .28)
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I: Background.- 1. An Introduction.- 2. Conceptualizations of Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination.- II: Self-Determination Theory.- 3. Cognitive Evaluation Theory: Perceived Causality and Perceived Competence.- 4. Cognitive Evaluation Theory: Interpersonal Communication and Intrapersonal Regulation.- 5. Toward an Organismic Integration Theory: Motivation and Development.- 6. Causality Orientations Theory: Personality Influences on Motivation.- III: Alternative Approaches.- 7. Operant and Attributional Theories.- 8. Information-Processing Theories.- IV: Applications and Implications.- 9. Education.- 10. Psychotherapy.- 11. Work.- 12. Sports.- References.- Author Index.
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