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The Mere Urgency Effect

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The Mere Urgency Effect
MENG ZHU
YANG YANG
CHRISTOPHER K. HSEE
In everyday life, people are often faced with choices between tasks of varying lev-
els of urgency and importance. How do people choose? Normatively speaking,
people may choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, in-
stead of important tasks with larger outcomes, because important tasks are more
difficult and further away from goal completion, urgent tasks involve more immedi-
ate and certain payoffs, or people want to finish the urgent tasks first and then
work on important tasks later. The current research identifies a mere urgency ef-
fect, a tendency to pursue urgency over importance even when these normative
reasons are controlled for. Specifically, results from five experiments demonstrate
that people are more likely to perform unimportant tasks (i.e., tasks with objec-
tively lower payoffs) over important tasks (i.e., tasks with objectively better pay-
offs), when the unimportant tasks are characterized merely by spurious urgency
(e.g., an illusion of expiration). The mere urgency effect documented in this re-
search violates the basic normative principle of dominance—choosing objectively
worse options over objectively better options. People behave as if pursuing an ur-
gent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence.
Keywords: mere urgency effect, urgency, importance, task completion window,
task payoff, dominance violation
Some tasks that we face are urgent: if they are not per-
formed within a given time frame, the opportunities to
work on them are gone. Other tasks are important: the con-
sequences of either performing or not performing such
tasks are sizable. When faced with simultaneous tasks of
varying levels of urgency and importance, how do we de-
cide which task to perform?
As an initial step in addressing this question, we classify
different daily tasks into four categories based on two or-
thogonal characteristics: task importance and task urgency
(see table 1). We define task importance as the state that
involves significant outcomes. Important (vs. unimportant)
tasks are characterized by big (vs. small) outcome magni-
tudes. We define task urgency as the state that requires im-
mediate responsiveness. Tasks that are urgent (vs.
nonurgent) are characterized by short (vs. long) completion
windows.
It is not surprising that people frequently prioritize im-
portant, urgent tasks (category I) over unimportant or non-
urgent tasks, given that the former are characterized by
both big outcome magnitudes and short completion win-
dows. For example, one might rush to the hospital to get a
cancer screening immediately after noticing a suspicious-
looking mole. It is also understandable that unimportant,
nonurgent tasks (category IV) are unlikely to be prioritized,
given that these tasks are characterized by both small out-
come magnitudes and long completion windows. For ex-
ample, one might never bother to redeem a chocolate ice
cream coupon that does not have an expiration date, when
nobody in the household likes chocolate ice cream.
Meng Zhu (mengzhu@jhu.edu) is an associate professor of marketing at
Johns Hopkins Carey Business School; Yang Yang (Yang.Yang@warrington.
ufl.edu) is an assistant professor of marketing, Warrington College of
Business Administration, University of Florida; and Christopher K. Hsee
(chris.hsee@chicagobooth.edu) is Theodore O. Yntema Professor of
Behavioral Science and Marketing, Booth School of Business, University
of Chicago. Please address correspondence to Meng Zhu. The authors
thank the members of the Center for Behavioral Decision Research at
Carnegie Mellon University for their insightful feedback. The authors also
thank the editor, the associate editor, and three anonymous reviewers for
their insightful comments and suggestions. This research was supported
by the Behavioral Experimental Research Fund from Johns Hopkins
Carey Business School. Supplementary materials are included in the web
appendix accompanying the online version of this article.
Gita Johar served as editor and Leonard Lee served as associate editor
for this article.
Advance Access publication February 9, 2018
V
CThe Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Journal of Consumer Research, Inc.
All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com Vol. 45 2018
DOI: 10.1093/jcr/ucy008
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It is not obvious, though, how people make tradeoffs be-
tween important, nonurgent tasks (category II) and unim-
portant, urgent tasks (category III). This is an important
question to address, because such direct tradeoffs between
urgency and importance often result in suboptimal out-
comes. For example, when faced with many candies that
were overbought over time, one might choose to first con-
sume less fresh ones that are closer to their expiration date
(e.g., candy bars expiring in March), instead of consuming
the fresher items with a more distant expiration date (e.g.,
candy bars expiring in May), even when it is impossible to
finish all of the items before their expiration dates (e.g., the
end of May). Likewise, choosing to visit a store for its
soon-to-end annual sale might lead one to postpone a rou-
tine medical checkup, which could be potentially life sav-
ing by diagnosing cancer at an early, curable stage.
The current research explores how people make trade-
offs between urgency and importance when the two are in
direct conflict (i.e., when one has to choose between an
unimportant, urgent task vs. an important, nonurgent task).
The results from this research provide compelling support
for a mere urgency effect, a tendency to pursue urgency
over importance even when normative reasons are con-
trolled for. Importantly, controlling for possible normative
reasons and showing a nonnormative mere urgency effect
allow us to gain insight into an issue of high real-world rel-
evance: people’s tendency to procrastinate on what is im-
portant to finish what is urgent goes beyond rational
inferences, reflecting a basic psychological preference. In
particular, we find that the limited time frame embedded in
urgent tasks, a salient restriction in the local decision con-
text, elicits attention, diverting focus away from the magni-
tudes of task outcomes.
The remainder of the article is organized as follows. We
first review normative reasons why people might prefer ur-
gency, followed by a review of the relevant literature on
choice restrictions and judgment and decision making, to
generate predictions about why people might exhibit a pref-
erence for urgency when normative reasons are controlled
for. Five experiments then demonstrate the proposed mere
urgency effect and the underlying psychological process.
We conclude with theoretical contributions as well as impli-
cations for managers and policy makers who seek to design
interventions to increase the long-term well-being and pro-
ductivity of their employees and our society.
NORMATIVE REASONS FOR URGENCY
PURSUIT
In everyday life, people may pursue urgency over impor-
tance for potential normative reasons. First, important tasks
are often more difficult, and people are unwilling to ex-
pend the effort to perform such tasks (O’Donoghue and
Rabin 2001). Second, urgent tasks sometimes are depen-
dent on each other; missing one urgent task may result in a
series of losses in the future. Third, urgent tasks may have
low supply or high demand, either of which could increase
the perceived value of the task (Brock 1968;Cialdini 2009;
Worchel, Lee, and Adewole 1975). Fourth, the payoffs of
urgent tasks are often realized sooner, and people may
value immediate payoffs more than future payoffs
(Frederick, Loewenstein, and O’Donoghue 2002;McClure
et al. 2004). Fifth, the payoffs of important tasks may be
further away from goal completion and less certain, which
could decrease motivation (Hull 1932;Kivetz, Urminsky,
and Zheng 2006). Finally, people might want to keep all
TABLE 1
CATEGORIZATION OF DAILY TASKS BASED ON TASK IMPORTANCE AND TASK URGENCY
I. Important tasks that are urgent
Definitions
Tasks characterized by big outcome magnitudes and short com-
pletion windows.
Examples
Get a cancer screening if one has a suspicious-looking mole.
Work on a manuscript with “minor revision” when an untenured
professor needs another publication for the upcoming promotion.
II. Important tasks that are nonurgent
Definitions
Tasks characterized by big outcome magnitudes and long com-
pletion windows.
Examples
Schedule a routine medical checkup at the doctor’s office.
Spend quality time with loved ones and show them how much
they are cared for and appreciated.
III. Unimportant tasks that are urgent
Definitions
Tasks characterized by small outcome magnitudes and short
completion windows.
Examples
Redeem a chocolate ice cream coupon that expires in two hours,
even when nobody in one’s household really likes chocolate ice
cream.
Consume less fresh candies expiring in March over fresher ones
expiring in May, even if one knows that he/she will not be able to
finish all the candies before the end of May.
IV. Unimportant tasks that are nonurgent
Definitions
Tasks characterized by small outcome magnitudes and long
completion windows.
Examples
Redeem a chocolate ice cream coupon that does not have an ex-
piration date, when nobody in one’s household really likes choco-
late ice cream.
Try to find a spa tool set bought several years ago and currently
stored somewhere in the basement, when one never engages in
any at-home spa activities.
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options viable so that they can finish the urgent tasks first
and then work on important tasks later (Shin and Ariely
2004).
The current research intends to explore whether individ-
uals choose to perform urgent tasks over important tasks
even when these potential normative reasons are held con-
stant, thus offering new insights into the process through
which people make tradeoffs between urgency and
importance.
THE MERE URGENCY EFFECT
We propose that people exhibit a mere urgency effect,
pursuing urgency over importance, even when potential
normative reasons are controlled for. Specifically, the mere
urgency effect predicts that people will be more likely to
perform an unimportant task over an important task that is
clearly dominating in terms of payoffs, when the unimpor-
tant task is merely characterized by spurious urgency (e.g.,
an illusion of expiration).
We offer an attention-based account to explain the mere
urgency effect. The limited time frame embedded in an ur-
gent task is a salient restriction in the local decision con-
text, and it elicits attention, diverting focus away from the
magnitudes of task outcomes (e.g., payoffs). Our theoriza-
tion builds on research suggesting that choice restrictions
tend to draw attention (Berlyne 1969;Botti et al. 2008;
Brehm 1966;Cialdini 2009;Pribram and McGuinness
1975) and thus create attentional neglect in the unrestricted
domains (Brendl, Markman, and Messner 2003;Shah,
Mullainathan, and Shafir 2012), along with findings show-
ing that consumers’ actual and mere perception of choice
restrictions often produce similar downstream consequen-
ces (Cheema and Patrick 2008;Shah, Shafir, and
Mullainathan 2015). Various theories posit a linkage be-
tween choice restrictions and heightened attentional focus.
A choice restriction refers to “any internally or externally
imposed boundary that limits and/or confines choices,” and
can result from both the limited availability of an option
and the immediate time frame of an option (Botti et al.
2008, 185). Research on activation suggests that attention
is typically drawn to stimuli that are restricted and limited
(Berlyne 1969;Pribram and McGuinness 1975). For exam-
ple, Cialdini (2009) proposes that in situations where
something becomes restricted, our cognitive processes are
often suppressed and our attention is heightened. Brehm
(1966) further explains that when a person’s behavioral
freedom is threatened by restrictions the person becomes
focused on reestablishing what had been threatened.
Moreover, the heightened attention resulting from restric-
tions can create attentional neglect in the unrestricted
domains. For example, Shah et al. (2012) demonstrate that
participants assigned restricted versus unrestricted budgets
in a multiple-round game failed to consider what would
come in the future rounds (i.e., neglecting problems where
restriction is not salient) as they were engaged in address-
ing the demands of each current round, which resulted in
excessive borrowing. Brendl et al. (2003) show that habit-
ual smokers who had not yet smoked (i.e., experienced re-
striction in the domain of smoking) purchased fewer raffle
tickets to win cash (i.e., neglected stimuli from the unre-
stricted monetary domain) than those who had smoked. In
a similar vein, participants who felt hungrier rated nonfood
products such as DVD players and sneakers as less attrac-
tive (Brendl et al. 2003).
Our theorization is also inspired by the notion that the
psychological tension and discomfort triggered by task ur-
gency result in increased attentional focus on urgent tasks
and subsequent urge to pursue them. For example, prior re-
search on the Zeigarnik effect has shown that the psycho-
logical tension arising from task incompletion leads people
to remember incomplete tasks better than complete tasks
(Atkinson 1953;Zeigarnik 1935). Accordingly, the psy-
chological tension and discomfort triggered by task ur-
gency might generate attentional focus on urgent tasks and
in turn prompt actions toward resolving such tension—in
this case, driving one to resolve the tension at the sacrifice
of objectively higher payoffs. In addition, behavioral deci-
sion literature has argued that visceral, affective reactions
(e.g., tension, discomfort) to stimuli tend to quickly redi-
rect cognitive processing toward high-priority concerns,
such as imminent sources of danger, before people could
cognitively assess the overall desirability of options
(Finucane et al. 2000;Kahneman and Frederick 2002;
Loewenstein et al. 2001;Stanovich and West 2000). In the
context we are studying, the psychological tension and dis-
comfort triggered by task urgency might have prevented
the controlled cognitive operations from assessing the ob-
jective payoffs of different options at the moment of task
choice, resulting in a final decision that remains anchored
on initial intuitive impression, that is, urgency pursuit.
Furthermore, the literature on time pressure has shown that
decision makers under limited time frames tend to employ
noncompensatory decision rules that focus attention on a
particular negatively valenced attribute dimension instead
of multiple attributes across all the choice options (Ben
Zur and Breznitz 1981;Svenson and Eland 1987;Svenson,
Edland, and Slovic 1990). Along the same lines of reason-
ing, the tension generated by task urgency might be potent
enough to divert consumers’ attention away from task pay-
offs and lead them to pursue urgent tasks, beyond their ob-
jective consequences.
The findings reviewed above suggest that task urgency,
a particular instantiation of choice restriction (Botti et al.
2008), would draw one’s attention toward the time aspect
of the tasks, and away from the outcome (payoff) aspect,
and thereby increase one’s tendency to perform an urgent
task even if it is unimportant in terms of outcome.
Furthermore, previous research suggests that consumers’
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mere perception of choice restrictions alone can affect their
judgment and decision making. For example, Shah et al.
(2015) show that perceived time constraint can produce the
same effects on valuation as actual time constraint, leading
people to focus on current pressing needs rather than irrele-
vant contextual cues. Likewise, Cheema and Patrick
(2008) find that the pure framing of redemption windows
as restrictive or expansive, with the actual redemption date
held constant, can affect promotion evaluation. Thus, we
expect that even spurious task urgency (e.g., an illusion of
task expiration) will be sufficient to produce a preference
for unimportant tasks.
The mere urgency effect we study is different from the
restriction effects documented in the prior literature (Ge,
Messinger, and Li 2009;Gierl and Huettl 2010;Inman,
Peter, and Raghubir 1997;Lynn 1989;Shah et al. 2012;
Snyder and Fromkin 1980;Stock and Balachander 2005;
Van Herpen, Pieters, and Zeelenberg 2009;Verhallen and
Robben 1994). For example, previous research on com-
modity theory shows that restrictions from access to a com-
modity increase the extent to which consumers value that
commodity (Brock 1968;Brock and Brannon 1992). Such
extant restriction effects are largely driven by rational
inferences people made about the restricted options, such
as about their quality (Stock and Balachander 2005), their
price (Lynn 1989), their uniqueness (Snyder and Fromkin
1980), their popularity (Van Herpen et al. 2009), and their
status (Gierl and Huettl 2010). In contrast, our research
intends to document a restriction effect that resists such
normative inferences. We do so by employing a joint eval-
uation setup (Hsee 1998;Hsee and Zhang 2010) in which
the restricted option is clearly dominated by the nonres-
tricted option. Specifically, the featured restricted option is
evidently not of higher demand, quality, cost, and exclusiv-
ity, yet is apparently inferior in terms of monetary payoffs,
as compared to the featured nonrestricted option. While
some previous studies have also employed a similar
within-subject design presenting respondents with both the
restricted and nonrestricted options simultaneously (Inman
et al. 1997;Shah et al. 2012;Verhallen and Robben 1994),
the restricted options in those studies are not obviously
dominated by the nonrestricted alternatives. To the best of
our knowledge, the current work is the first to investigate
whether people would pursue a restricted option even
when it is unequivocally dominated by a nonrestricted
alternative.
The mere urgency effect we study also differs from and
extends prior findings on the effects of time pressure, a
particular form of restriction that requires one to make a
decision within a limited time frame (Jacoby, Szybillo, and
Berning 1976), in at least two ways. First, extant time pres-
sure literature (Ben Zur and Breznitz 1981;Dhar and
Nowlis 1999;Jacoby et al. 1976;Pieters and Warlop 1999;
Reutskaja et al. 2011;Svenson and Eland 1987;Svenson
et al. 1990) has mainly focused on situations where
consumers do not have a sufficient amount of time to make
a decision. For instance, they have to finish a task or com-
plete a decision step within 5 seconds, while the task or
step itself commonly takes at least 15 seconds. Our re-
search instead focuses on spurious task urgency—that is,
situations where consumers always have sufficient time to
make a decision as well as to finish a task. In particular, we
investigate scenarios where the duration of the focal tasks
is fixed and is always shorter than its expiration time.
Second, while previous research has employed the eye-
tracking methodology to document the general phenomena
that the search process under time pressure is random with
respect to value (Reutskaja et al. 2011) and that visual at-
tention is positively related to final choices (Pieters and
Warlop 1999), as well as provided laboratory evidence that
time pressure increases reliance on negative features (Ben
Zur and Breznitz 1981;Svenson and Eland 1987) and non-
compensatory decision rules (Svenson et al. 1990), these
prior studies have never demonstrated a counternormative
time pressure effect that violates the basic normative prin-
ciple of dominance—choosing objectively worse options
over objectively better options.
THE PARADIGM TO TEST THE MERE
URGENCY EFFECT
As noted earlier, people in real life pursue urgency for
multiple reasons that are potentially normative. To see
whether people still pursue urgency even without such po-
tential normative reasons, we introduce a highly simplified
yet well-controlled and flexible paradigm.
Our paradigm asks participants to make either single-
shot or repeated tradeoff decisions between urgent tasks
and important tasks within the fixed time span of an experi-
ment. Instead of manipulating real urgency (e.g., high im-
mediacy of task expiration), we manipulate spurious
urgency by inducing an illusion of task expiration such that
the duration of a task is always shorter than its expiration
time (i.e., participants in each experiment can always finish
the focal tasks before they expire). We manipulate impor-
tance by varying the payoffs (e.g., money and gift cards)
participants can earn through the tasks specified in the ex-
periment, while holding constant other characteristics of
the focal tasks, including task difficulty, task interdepend-
ence, goal progress, supply and demand, and outcome
immediacy.
Our paradigm is operated through both physical labora-
tories and Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), an online
marketplace where an on-demand, scalable workforce can
select from thousands of Human Intelligent Tasks (HITs)
posted by requesters each for a fixed wage that is paid in-
stantly upon completion of the work specified in a HIT.
We study whether conventional laboratory participants
would give up a higher-value prize and whether
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professional contractual workers on MTurk would sacrifice
a bonus amount equivalent to a significant percentage of
their fixed wage, in order to pursue low-payoff tasks that
are merely characterized by an illusion of task expiration.
To ensure that this proposed preference for low-payoff
tasks is not driven by participants’ desire to keep all
options viable (Shin and Ariely 2004; e.g., participants
might plan to finish the tasks with short completion win-
dows first and then work on high-payoff tasks with longer
completion windows afterward), all participants would be
explicitly informed up front that they can perform only one
task in an experiment, that they can participate in the ex-
periment only once, and that they will not be paid if they
participate more than once.
The paradigm described above enables us to explore
whether people pursue urgency beyond the potential nor-
mative reasons identified earlier. Employing this paradigm,
we test the proposed mere urgency effect and the underly-
ing process across five experiments. Specifically, experi-
ment 1 provides initial empirical support for the mere
urgency effect, demonstrating that laboratory participants
were more likely to perform an unimportant (vs. important)
task, consequently earning fewer Hershey’s Kisses, when
the unimportant task was characterized by spurious ur-
gency. Experiments 2–4 provide further evidence for the
mere urgency effect, showing that MTurk workers were
more likely to sign up for a spuriously urgent assignment,
thereby forfeiting the opportunity to make more money or
win a higher-value Amazon gift card. These experiments
also provide process evidence by showing the mediating
role of attentional focus and the moderating roles of out-
come salience and perceived busyness.
EXPERIMENT 1: EARNING FEWER
HERSHEY’S KISSES
The objective of experiment 1 was to provide initial evi-
dence for the mere urgency effect. We did so through a
single-shot choice setting developed based on the aforede-
scribed paradigm: whereas we operationalized task impor-
tance by varying the number of Hershey’s Kisses
participants could earn, we induced task urgency through
an illusion of expiration. We predicted that a higher per-
centage of students would choose the low-payoff assign-
ment and thus earn fewer Hershey’s Kisses, when the low-
payoff assignment was characterized by spurious urgency.
Methods
One hundred twenty-four students (67 females;
M
age
¼20.02, SD ¼1.39) from a large US university com-
pleted a laboratory experiment in exchange for course
credit. Students were told that in this study, they could
choose from one of two assignments, Task A or Task B, to
work on, and that they could earn a bonus by completing
either task. All students were explicitly informed up front
that they could perform only one task in this experiment,
that they could participate in this experiment only once,
and that they would not receive extra credit if they partici-
pate more than once. Students were randomly assigned to
one of two conditions, urgency or control. All students
were told that both tasks required them to perform the
same type of activity—that is, to write five short reviews
of randomly chosen product categories, such as smart-
phones—and the tasks did not differ in terms of difficulty
and length. Specifically, they would be presented with five
product categories, given a total of 5 minutes, and asked to
write five reviews within the 5 minute window.
We operationalized task importance by varying the
value of the prize for completing each task. We operation-
alized urgency through task expiration time. Specifically,
in the urgency condition, students learned that the two
tasks differed in two attributes—their bonus level (i.e., one
of the tasks would offer them a bonus of 6 points per re-
view, and the other task would offer them a bonus of 10
points per review) and task expiration time (i.e., one task
would expire in 10 minutes, and the other would expire in
24 hours). Students were further told that for every 10
points they earn, they would receive one chocolate
Hershey’s Kiss. To eliminate any possible inferences stu-
dents might make about these two tasks, they were further
informed that the attribute level of each task would be ran-
domly decided by two randomizers (see appendixes A and
B). While one randomizer always assigned students to earn
a bonus of 6 points per review (i.e., 30 points/three
Hershey’s Kisses in total) by completing Task A or a bonus
of 10 points per review (i.e., 50 points/five Hershey’s
Kisses in total) by completing Task B, the other random-
izer told them that Task A would expire in 10 minutes and
Task B would expire in 24 hours. In the control condition,
students were told that the two tasks differed only in their
bonus level, which would be randomly determined by a
randomizer (which revealed the same outcome as in the ur-
gency condition), and that both tasks would expire in
24 hours.
Students then indicated which assignment they would
work on. After indicating their choice, students started
working on the task of their choice, in which they first
wrote a short review for a product category within
1 minute. When 1 minute was up, the computer automati-
cally directed them to the next product category. The same
procedure repeated until they finished all five reviews.
After the task was completed, each student was given a
prize of either three Hershey’s Kisses or five Hershey’s
Kisses depending on his or her task choice.
Results and Discussion
Pretests. To check the effectiveness of our urgency ma-
nipulation and importance operationalization, we recruited
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a separate group of participants (N¼49), presented them
with instructions identical to those used in the urgency con-
dition of the main experiment, and asked them to rate the
urgency and importance of each of the two tasks by indi-
cating “To what extent do you consider Task A/B to be ur-
gent (i.e., involving a short completion window)?” on a
seven-point scale anchored by “1 ¼Not urgent at all;
7¼Very urgent” and “To what extent do you consider
Task A/B to be important (i.e., involving a high payoff)?”
on a seven-point scale anchored by “1 ¼Not important at
all; 7 ¼Very important,” respectively. Indeed, Task A was
considered significantly more urgent (M¼5.59, SD ¼1.44
vs. M¼2.73, SD ¼1.66; t(48) ¼8.59, p<.001; d¼1.23)
and less important than Task B (M¼4.12, SD ¼1.63 vs.
M¼5.10, SD ¼1.48; t(48) ¼3.40, p¼.001, d¼.49). In
addition, participants rated the difficulty of each task (“To
what extent do you consider Task A/B to be difficult?”
1¼Not difficult at all; 7 ¼Very difficult) and no differ-
ence was found in task difficulty (M¼3.53, SD ¼1.45 vs.
M¼3.37, SD ¼1.48; t(48) ¼1.00, p¼.32, d¼.14).
Task Choice. Although the important task in this study
(i.e., performing the assignment that offered a bonus of
five Hershey’s Kisses) clearly dominates the unimportant
task (i.e., performing the assignment that offered a bonus
of three Hershey’s Kisses), the mere urgency effect pre-
dicts that workers would be more likely to perform the
low-payoff assignment when its expiration time was
10 minutes as compared to 24 hours. Consistent with this
prediction, whereas 13.3% of students chose to work on
the low-payoff task in the control condition, 31.3% of stu-
dents chose to work on it in the urgency condition,
v
2
(1) ¼5.69, p¼.017, u¼.21. It is worth noting that in
this and the subsequent experiments, we observed that a
few participants opted to work on the low-payoff option
even in the control condition. We speculate that this might
have happened for idiosyncratic reasons or preferences
(e.g., these participants do not care about the payoffs and
pick randomly). Since such idiosyncratic reasons should be
taken care of by random assignment, as long as we observe
an increase of choice share in the urgency condition, the
mere urgency effect is supported.
Discussion. The mere urgency effect is insusceptible to a
series of seemingly alternative explanations. First, the two
tasks in this study were obviously identical in terms of dif-
ficulty, interdependence, and goal progress. Therefore,
such factors cannot possibly account for the effect. Second,
for each student, the supply of the two tasks was fixed (i.e.,
each student could only perform the task once). The in-
ferred demand of the two tasks should not differ, since stu-
dents were told that the payoff and expiration time of each
task were randomly decided by the computer. Accordingly,
supply-demand is unlikely to drive the effect. Third, the
outcomes of the two tasks did not differ in their immediacy
of rewards (students knew they would receive payments
immediately after they finished the study). Finally, given
that students were explicitly informed up front that they
could perform only one task in this experiment, and that
they could participate in this study only once, it is unlikely
that the motivation to keep options viable (Shin and Ariely
2004) might have led them to choose the urgent task.
Of note, the low-payoff option in the current experiment
was linked to spurious urgency, because students in both
the urgency and control conditions could finish the task
(which always automatically ended in exactly 5 minutes)
within the respective time window provided (i.e.,
10 minutes and 24 hours, respectively). Yet students were
willing to give up a high-value prize that was 1.67 times
the value of the low-value prize, merely because the low-
payoff assignment was characterized by an illusion of
expiration.
Together, the results from experiment 1 provide prelimi-
nary evidence for the mere urgency effect, showing that
students were more likely to perform an unimportant task
(and thus earn fewer Hershey’s Kisses) when it was spuri-
ously urgent. In the next four studies, we provide direct ev-
idence for the proposed attention-based explanation by
showing that the effect of time frame on task choice is me-
diated by attentional focus (experiments 2 A and 2B) and
moderated by outcome salience (experiment 3) and per-
ceived busyness (experiment 4).
EXPERIMENTS 2 A AND 2B: MAKING
LESS MONEY—AN ATTENTION-BASED
ACCOUNT
The main objective of experiments 2A and 2B was to di-
rectly test the proposed attention-based psychological pro-
cess by examining the mediating role of attentional focus
in the relationship between urgency and task choice.
Employing the same paradigm, we presented MTurk work-
ers with either a single-shot choice between a high-payoff,
nonurgent assignment and a low-payoff, spuriously urgent
assignment (urgency condition), or a high-payoff assign-
ment and a low-payoff assignment that were both nonur-
gent (control condition). Additionally, we either asked
workers to explain at the end of the experiment how they
decided which tasks to work on and then coded their atten-
tional focus based on the open-ended responses (experi-
ment 2A), or directly asked workers to rate the amount of
attention they paid to the bonus amounts and task expira-
tion time on two separate Likert scales anchored by
“1¼not at all” and “8 ¼very much” (experiment 2B). We
expected that contractual workers on MTurk whose daily
job involves signing up to work on different HITs in order
to make money would be more likely to choose the low-
payoff assignment and thus make less money, when the
low-payoff assignment was characterized by an illusion of
expiration. Further, we predicted that this effect would be
mediated by attentional focus.
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Experiment 2A Methods
Two hundred three workers recruited from MTurk (116
females; M
age
¼37.21; SD ¼12.78) completed a study for
a fixed wage of $.50 plus a bonus of either $.12 or $.16
depending on which task they chose in the experiment.
Before signing up, workers were told that in this HIT, they
could choose one of two assignments to work on, and that
by completing either task they could earn a fixed wage of
50 cents as well as a bonus that would be added to their
MTurk account. They were explicitly informed up front
that they could participate in this study only once and that
they would not be paid if they participate more than once.
After accepting the HIT, workers were randomly assigned
to one of two conditions, urgency or control. Similar to the
procedure used in experiment 1, all workers were told that
both tasks required them to perform the same type of activ-
ity—to type some randomly generated six-letter strings
(e.g., “rlgows”) in reverse order (e.g., “swoglr”)—and the
tasks did not differ in terms of difficulty and length.
Specifically, workers would be presented with 100 strings,
given a total of 3 minutes, and asked to type as many
strings as possible within the 3 minute window.
We operationalized task importance by varying the bo-
nus offered to complete each task. We operationalized ur-
gency through task expiration time. Specifically, in the
urgency condition, workers learned that the two tasks dif-
fered in two attributes—their bonus level (i.e., one task of-
fered 12 cents, and the other offered 16 cents) and task
expiration time (i.e., one task expired in 5 minutes, and the
other expired in 50 minutes). To eliminate any possible in-
ference workers may make about these two tasks, we fur-
ther informed them that the attribute level of each task
would be randomly determined by a randomizer (see ap-
pendixes C and D). Similar to experiment 1, workers were
then shown a randomizer, which always paired the task
with inferior payoff (that offered a bonus of 12 cents) with
the short expiration time (5 minutes) and paired the high-
payoff task (that offered a bonus of 16 cents) with the long
expiration time (50 minutes). In the control condition,
workers were told that the two tasks differed only in their
bonus level (12 vs. 16 cents) which would be randomly de-
termined by a randomizer, and that both tasks would expire
in 50 minutes.
Workers then indicated which assignment they would
work on. We recorded how much time each worker spent
making the assignment choice. After indicating their
choice, workers started working on the task of their choice,
in which they were asked to type as many strings as possi-
ble in reverse order in 3 minutes. To capture workers’
spontaneous attentional focus, all workers then responded
to an open-ended question about how they decided which
tasks to work on. Finally, to examine whether the urgency
manipulation changed workers’ perception about the tasks,
we measured the perceived differences in payoffs,
difficulty, and desirability, each on a seven-point scale
(e.g., “To what extent do you think the two tasks differ in
their payoffs?” 1 ¼Not at all, 7 ¼Very much). After the
HIT was completed, the fixed wage of 50 cents as well as a
bonus of either 12 cents or 16 cents was deposited to each
worker’s payment account.
Experiment 2A Results and Discussion
Pretests. To check the effectiveness of our urgency ma-
nipulation and importance operationalization, we recruited
a separate group of participants (N¼53), presented them
with instructions identical to those used in the urgency con-
dition of the main experiment, and asked them to rate the
extent to which they consider each of the tasks to be
“urgent (i.e., involving a short completion window)” and
“important (i.e., involving a high payoff)” on two separate
scales anchored by “1 ¼Not urgent at all, 7 ¼Very urgent”
and “1 ¼Not important at all; 7 ¼Very important.” Indeed,
the task that offered 12 cents and expired in 5 minutes was
considered significantly more urgent (M¼5.40, SD ¼1.29
vs. M¼3.32, SD ¼1.59; t(52) ¼6.59, p<.001; d¼.90)
and less important than the task that offered 16 cents and
expired in 50 minutes (M¼3.92, SD ¼1.59 vs. M¼4.58,
SD ¼1.67; t(52) ¼2.83, p¼.007, d¼.39). Participants
also rated the difficulty of each task on a seven-point scale
anchored by “1 ¼Not difficult at all; 7 ¼Very difficult”
and no difference was found in task difficulty (M¼3.96,
SD ¼1.68 vs. M¼3.89, SD ¼1.48; t(52) ¼1.00, p¼.37,
d¼.05).
Task Choice. Although the important task (i.e., the task
that offered a bonus of 16 cents) clearly dominates the
unimportant task (i.e., the task that offered a bonus of 12
cents), the mere urgency effect predicts that workers would
be more likely to perform the low-payoff assignment when
its expiration time was 5 minutes as compared to
50 minutes. Consistent with this prediction, whereas 13.9%
of workers chose to work on the low-payoff task in the
control condition, 35.3% of workers chose to work on the
low-payoff task in the urgency condition, v
2
(1) ¼11.43,
p<.001, u¼.24.
Decision Time and Task Perception. Time taken on
making the task choice was not significantly different
across the urgency and control conditions
(M¼7.22 seconds, SD ¼24.47 vs. M¼4.56 seconds,
SD ¼4.26; F(1, 200) ¼1.15, p¼.286, gp2¼.006), sug-
gesting that the mere urgency effect is unlikely to be driven
by changes in cognitive processing (Petty and Cacioppo
1986). The perceived differences in task payoffs
(M¼3.99, SD ¼1.58 vs. M¼3.94, SD ¼1.69; F(1,
200) ¼.05, p¼.828, gp2¼0), difficulty (M¼1.87,
SD ¼1.57 vs. M¼1.66, SD ¼1.36; F(1, 200) ¼1.06,
p¼.304, gp2¼.005), and desirability (M¼4.27,
SD ¼1.65 vs. M¼4.60, SD ¼1.73; F(1, 200) ¼1.87,
p¼.173, gp2¼.009) did not vary across conditions, ruling
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out potential normative inferences people made about the
tasks.
Attentional Focus. The number of sentences participants
wrote with regard to how they decided which task to work
on did not differ across conditions (M¼1.27, SD ¼.65 vs.
M¼1.25, SD ¼.67; F(1, 201) ¼.09, p¼.771, gp2¼.000).
Two raters blind to the hypotheses and condition coded the
open-ended reasons for assignment choice participants
listed by answering two Yes/No questions, with one cap-
turing attention to task expiration time (“Did the partici-
pant mention anything related to the time dimension of the
tasks?” Yes ¼1, No ¼0; Cohen’s Kappa ¼.87, p<.001),
and the other capturing attention to bonus amounts (“Did
the participant mention anything related to the payoffs of
the tasks?” Yes ¼1, No ¼0; Cohen’s Kappa ¼.93,
p<.001). Disagreements were resolved through discus-
sion. As predicted, the thought protocol analysis revealed
that participants in the urgency condition were more likely
to mention thoughts related to expiration time (41.2% vs.
1.0%, v
2
(1) ¼49.09, p<.001, u¼.49) and less likely to
mention thoughts related to payoffs (69.6% vs. 82.2%,
v
2
(1) ¼4.38, p¼.036, u¼.15) than those in the control
condition (see figure 1).
We hypothesize that the relative focus on expiration
time versus bonus amount mediates the effect of urgency
on task choice. To capture the relative focus, we examined
to what extent the open-ended thoughts focused on expira-
tion time relative to bonus amounts. The relative atten-
tional focus measure ranges from –1 to þ1, with higher
values representing relatively more attention to time versus
bonus amount. Specifically, if a thought mentioned both
task expiration time and bonus amounts, then the relative
attentional focus is equal to 0. If a thought mentioned task
expiration time only, then the relative attentional focus is
equal to 1. If a thought mentioned bonus amounts only,
then the relative attentional focus is equal to –1. Consistent
with our prediction, the relative attentional focus mediated
the effect of urgency on task choice (b¼1.42, SE ¼.46,
95% CI ¼[.87, 2.21]).
Discussion. These findings support our thesis that re-
stricted time frames elicit attention, diverting focus away
from the magnitudes of task outcomes, and that this shift in
attentional focus leads to a stronger preference for urgent
tasks with low payoffs over important tasks with higher
payoffs yet longer completion windows. Of note, we do
not have any hypothesis regarding whether and how our
manipulation would influence task performance.
Nevertheless, we analyzed the performance data, reported
the number of strings typed and the number of strings cor-
rectly typed in the web appendix, and discussed the find-
ings in General Discussion.
Experiment 2B Methods
Two hundred four workers recruited from MTurk (103
females; M
age
¼36.21; SD ¼10.98) completed a study for
a fixed wage of $.50 plus a bonus of either $.12 or $.16
depending on which task they chose in the experiment. The
operationalization of importance and the manipulation of
urgency were the same as experiment 2A. However, in-
stead of asking workers to explain their task choice in an
open-ended fashion, we had workers report their atten-
tional focus by responding to two questions: while deciding
which task to complete, to what extent they paid attention
to the bonus amounts (1 ¼Not at all; 8¼Very much) and
the task expiration time (1¼Not at all; 8 ¼Very much).
These two attentional focus measures were negatively cor-
related (r¼–.23, p¼.001).
FIGURE 1
IMPACT OF TIME FRAME ON THOUGHTS RELATED TO EXPIRATION TIME AND BONUS AMOUNTS (EXPERIMENT 2A)
1.0%
82.2%
41.2%
69.6%
0.0%
10.0%
20.0%
30.0%
40.0%
50.0%
60.0%
70.0%
80.0%
90.0%
100.0%
Thoughts related to expiration time Thoughts related to bonus amounts
Control condition Urgency condition
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Experiment 2B Results and Discussion
Replicating the results of experiment 2A, significantly
more workers chose to work on the low-payoff option in
the urgency versus control condition (48.1% vs. 7.3%;
v
2
(1) ¼41.27, p<.001, u¼.45). Moreover, workers paid
significantly more attention to task expiration time
(M¼5.56, SD ¼2.56 vs. M¼4.02, SD ¼2.70; F(1,
202) ¼17.53, p<.001, gp2¼.08) and significantly less at-
tention to the bonus amounts in the urgency (M¼5.70,
SD ¼2.48 vs. M¼7.26, SD ¼1.71; F(1, 202) ¼26.55,
p<.001, gp2¼.17) versus control condition (see figure 2).
To capture the relative attentional focus on expiration time
versus bonus amount, we created a composite measure by
subtracting attention to bonus amount from attention to ex-
piration time. The new measure ranges from –7 to þ7, with
higher values representing relatively more attention to time
versus bonus amount. As expected, workers paid relatively
more attention to expiration time in the urgency versus
control condition (M¼–.14, SD ¼4.05 vs. M¼–3.24,
SD ¼3.10; F(1, 202) ¼36.99, p<.001, gp2¼.16). The
relative attentional focus mediated the effect of urgency on
task choice (b¼1.25, SE ¼.34, 95% CI ¼[.70, 2.04]).
Discussion. Together, the results of experiments 2A and
2B provide converging support for the attention-based ex-
planation showing that the effect of urgency on choices be-
tween urgent and important tasks is mediated by
attentional focus. Similar to the choice setup used in exper-
iment 1, the two tasks in experiments 2A and 2B were
identical in terms of task difficulty, task interdependence,
and goal progress. Moreover, for each worker, the supply
of the two tasks was fixed (i.e., one), and the inferred de-
mand of the two tasks should not differ, since workers
were told that the payoff and expiration time of each task
were randomly decided by the computer. In addition, the
outcomes of the two tasks did not differ in terms of their
immediacy (the payments were deposited to workers’ ac-
count upon completion of the HIT). Yet contractual work-
ers on MTurk whose daily job involves signing up to work
on different HITs in order to make money were still willing
to give up an amount equivalent to 8% of their full wage
specified in the current contract, merely because the low-
payoff assignment was characterized by an illusion of ur-
gency. Further, given that the available time for either task
(5 or 50 minutes) was always greater than its duration
(3 minutes), that all workers were explicitly informed up
front that each worker could perform only one task in this
experiment, and that they could participate in this experi-
ment only once, it is unlikely that the motivation to keep
options viable (Shin and Ariely 2004) might have led peo-
ple to choose the urgent task.
To summarize, so far we have established the existence
of the mere urgency effect among both college students
and contractual workers. We demonstrate that such prefer-
ence for urgency over importance is not driven by potential
normative reasons such as task difficulty, task interdepend-
ence, supply/demand, reward immediacy, goal progress,
and the motivation to keep options viable. We find media-
tion evidence for the proposed attention-based account
through both indirect thought listing procedure and direct
self-reported measures, ruling out other alternative explan-
ations, including changes in cognitive processing, as well
as perceived differences in task payoffs, difficulty, and de-
sirability. To further rule out the possibility that partici-
pants in the urgency condition might have focused more on
the time dimension solely because it was the only attribute
that differed between conditions, the next two experiments
FIGURE 2
IMPACT OF TIME FRAME ON MEASURED ATTENTION TO EXPIRATION TIME AND BONUS AMOUNTS (EXPERIMENT 2B).
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Attention to task expiration time Attention to bonus amounts
Control condition Urgency condition
Error bars: þ/–1 SE
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examine whether an additional reminder of task payoffs
(outcome salience) and people’s chronic attentional focus
on the time dimension (perceived busyness) moderate the
mere urgency effect. No significant interaction patterns
should emerge according to this alternative account, as
time remains the only attribute that differs between condi-
tions. However, if the mere urgency effect arises from in-
creased attention paid to time versus payoff dimension, we
would expect that outcome salience attenuates and per-
ceived busyness accentuates the mere urgency effect.
EXPERIMENT 3: OUTCOME SALIENCE
ATTENUATES THE MERE URGENCY
EFFECT
According to our theory that the mere urgency effect
arises from the attention devoted to restricted time frames,
we should be able to moderate this effect by shifting work-
ers’ attention away from task completion windows to task
outcome magnitudes. For example, experimentally increas-
ing the salience of task outcomes (e.g., reminding people
of the payoff of each task before making task choices),
should lead people to focus less on task urgency and thus
exhibit a weaker preference for unimportant tasks.
Therefore, we predicted that increasing outcome salience
would attenuate the mere urgency effect.
To test this prediction, we manipulated outcome sa-
lience, in addition to urgency. More specifically, we pre-
sented MTurk workers the two assignments used in
experiment 2A and made task outcomes salient for half of
the workers by reminding them of the payoff of each task.
We expected that when the reminder of the task payoffs
was absent, workers would exhibit a greater preference for
the low-payoff assignment in the urgency versus control
condition, as in our studies presented thus far. However,
when the reminder of the task payoffs was present, there
would be no difference in the choice share.
Methods
Four hundred two workers from MTurk (242 females;
M
age
¼35.81; SD ¼12.07) completed an online study for a
fixed payment of $.50 plus a bonus of either $.12 or $.16
depending on their task choice in the experiment.
Experiment 3 employed a 2 (Time Frame: Urgency vs.
Control) 2 (Outcome salience: Salient vs. Nonsalient)
between-subjects design with random assignment. The
instructions provided in the outcome nonsalient conditions
were identical to those in experiment 2A. In the outcome
salient conditions, workers were presented with an addi-
tional reminder that “If you choose Task A, you will earn a
bonus of 12 cents. If you choose Task B, you will earn a
bonus of 16 cents” before indicating their task choice.
After indicating their choice, workers worked on the
task of their choice. When 3 minutes ran out, all workers
were automatically directed to the last block of the survey,
which asked them to indicate while deciding which task to
take, to what extent they paid attention to the bonus
amounts (1 ¼Not at all; 8¼Very much) and the task expi-
ration time (1¼Not at all; 8 ¼Very much). After the HIT
was completed, a fixed wage of 50 cents as well as a bonus
of either 12 cents or 16 cents was deposited to each work-
er’s payment account.
Results and Discussion
Task Choice. To examine whether outcome salience
moderates the mere urgency effect, we conducted a logistic
regression in which we regressed task choice on time
frame, outcome salience, and the interaction term of time
frame and outcome salience. We obtained a significant in-
teraction effect (B ¼–1.16, SE ¼.54, Wald (1) ¼4.54,
p¼.033), along with a significant main effect of time
frame (B ¼1.54, SE ¼.40, Wald (1) ¼15.18, p<.001).
The main effect of outcome salience was not significant
(B ¼.49, SE ¼.44, Wald (1) ¼1.24, p¼.265; see
figure 3).
Replicating the results from our previous studies, when
outcome magnitudes were not salient, workers were more
likely to choose the low-payoff option when it was urgent
than when it was not (33.7% vs. 9.8%, v
2
(1) ¼16.87,
p<.001, u¼.29). However, in the outcome salient condi-
tions where the payoffs for both tasks were highlighted at
the moment of task choice, the mere urgency effect was at-
tenuated and no difference in task choice was found
(20.6% vs. 15.0%, v
2
(1) ¼1.08, p¼.359, u¼.07).
Further, consistent with our theorization, the choice share
of the low-payoff option in the urgency condition was sig-
nificantly lower when workers were reminded of task pay-
offs (33.7% vs. 20.6%; v
2
(1) ¼4.34, p¼.037, u¼.15).
The difference in the control condition was not significant
(9.8% vs. 15.0%; v
2
(1) ¼1.26, p¼.26, u¼.08).
Attentional Focus. Next, we conducted a 2 (Time
Frame: Urgency vs. Control) 2 (Outcome Salience:
Salient vs. Not Salient) ANOVA on the relative attention
measure created by subtracting the attention to bonus
amount from the attention to expiration time, which
revealed a significant main effect of time frame (F(1,
398) ¼42.67, p<.001, g2
p¼.10) along with a marginally
significant interaction between time frame and outcome sa-
lience (F(1, 398) ¼2.76, p¼.098, g2
p¼.10). The main ef-
fect of outcome salience was not significant (F(1,
398) ¼1.05, p¼.307, g2
p¼.007). As predicted, when out-
come magnitudes were not salient, participants paid rela-
tively more attention to expiration time (i.e., less attention
to bonus amounts) in the urgency versus control condition
(M¼–.67, SD ¼3.81 vs. M¼–3.71, SD ¼3.73; F(1,
398) ¼5.78, p<.001, d¼.81). Yet this difference was at-
tenuated when the outcome magnitudes were made salient
(M¼–1.67, SD ¼4.08 vs. M¼–3.47, SD ¼3.14;
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F(1, 398) ¼3.45, p¼.001, d¼.49). Additionally, the rela-
tive attention paid to expiration time in the urgency condi-
tion was lower when the outcome magnitude was salient
versus not (M¼–1.67, SD ¼4.08 vs. M¼–.67, SD ¼3.81;
F(1, 398) ¼1.89, p¼.059, d¼.25; see figure 4).
To further probe the moderating role of outcome sa-
lience in the relationship between time frame, attentional
focus, and task choice, we examined the effects of attention
to the task expiration time and attention to bonus amounts
independently (Hayes 2013). Whereas the indirect effect of
time frame on task choice was mediated through both at-
tention to task expiration time (b¼.45, SE ¼.14, 95%
CI ¼[.22, .77]) and attention to bonus amounts (b¼.41,
SE ¼.11, 95% CI ¼[.21, .77] after we controlled for the
main effects of time frame (b¼.94, SE ¼.47, z¼2.02,
p¼.043) and outcome salience (b¼.86, SE ¼.50,
z¼1.71, p¼.088), the direct effect of time frame on task
choice was significantly moderated by outcome salience
(the interaction between time frame and outcome salience:
b¼–1.38, SE ¼.63, z¼–2.20, p¼.028) such that the con-
ditional direct effect of time frame was significant only in
the outcome nonsalient condition (b¼.94, SE ¼.47,
z¼2.02, p¼.044) but not in the outcome salient condition
(b¼–.44, SE ¼.43, z¼–1.02, p¼.309). These results are
FIGURE 3
IMPACT OF TIME FRAME AND OUTCOME SALIENCE ON TASK CHOICE (EXPERIMENT 3)
9.8% 15.0%
33.7%
20.6%
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
50%
60%
70%
80%
90%
100%
Outcome not salient Outcome salient
Choice share of the low-payoff task
Control condition Urgency condition
χ2(1) = 16.87, p< .001 χ2(1) = 1.08, p= .359
FIGURE 4
IMPACT OF TIME FRAME AND OUTCOME SALIENCE ON RELATIVE ATTENTION (EXPERIMENT 3).
-5
-4
-3
-2
-1
0
1
Outcome not salient Outcome salient
Relative attention to expiration
time over bonus amounts
Control condition Urgency condition
Error bars: þ/–1 SE
ZHU, YANG, AND HSEE 683
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consistent with our prediction that when task payoffs were
highlighted at the moment of task choice, the mere urgency
effect would attenuate.
Discussion. Taken together, the results of experiment 3
demonstrate that outcome salience moderates the mere
urgency effect, thus lending further support to our
attention-based account. Specifically, we find that shorter
task completion window elicits attention, diverting focus
away from the task payoffs, and in turn increased choice
share of the low-payoff option when there was no addi-
tional reminder of task payoffs in the decision context. Yet
this difference disappeared (i.e., the mere urgency effect
was attenuated) when the magnitudes of task payoffs were
experimentally made salient at the moment of task choice.
EXPERIMENT 4: PERCEIVED BUSYNESS
EXACERBATES THE MERE URGENCY
EFFECT
Experiments 1–3 have demonstrated the mere urgency
effect and provided both mediation and moderation evi-
dence for the proposed attention-based account. In the cur-
rent experiment, we investigated when the mere urgency
effect could be more pronounced. Because people who per-
ceive themselves as busy in general tend to be tuned into
the time dimension (Shah et al. 2012), chronically paying
more attention to task expiration time, we predicted that
people with higher level of perceived busyness would be
more responsive to the urgency manipulation, choosing
lower-payoff tasks more often when these tasks were
merely characterized by spurious urgency.
To test this prediction, we measured workers’ perceived
busyness (Wilcox et al. 2016) and expected it to moderate
the magnitude of the mere urgency effect, such that the
mere urgency effect would be more pronounced among
people perceiving themselves as busier in general. In addi-
tion, unlike our previous experiments, this experiment con-
sisted of three rounds, each of which asked participants to
choose between two tasks of varying levels of urgency and
importance. This setup allowed us to explore whether the
mere urgency effect would persist over time.
Methods
Four hundred two workers recruited from MTurk (226
females; M
age
¼36.93; SD ¼12.82) completed an online
study for a fixed payment of $.65 plus three entries into a
lottery drawing for an Amazon gift card of $20 or $25
depending on which tasks they chose in the experiment.
Upon opening the sign-up page on MTurk, workers learned
that they could earn a fixed wage of 65 cents as well as
chances to enter into lottery drawings. They were explicitly
informed that they could participate in this study only once
and that they would not be paid if they participated in the
study more than once.
This experiment consisted of three rounds, each of
which asked workers to choose between two typing tasks
(i.e., Task Y and Task Z; Task U and Task V; Task S and
Task T) that asked them to type as many of 10 randomly
generated six-letter strings (e.g., “rlgows”) as possible in
reverse order (e.g., “swoglr”) in 30 seconds. The typing
tasks did not differ in terms of difficulty and length. In
each round of the experiment, we operationalized task im-
portance by varying potential payouts from the lottery and
operationalized urgency through task expiration time. In
the urgency conditions, workers were shown two random-
izers, which always paired the task with inferior payoff (a
chance to win a $20 Amazon gift card) with the short expi-
ration time (5 minutes) and paired the high-payoff task (a
chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card) with the long expi-
ration time (50 minutes). In the control condition, workers
were told that the two tasks differed only in their lottery
outcome (a chance to win a $20 vs. $25 Amazon gift card),
which would be randomly determined by a randomizer,
and that both tasks would expire in 50 minutes. The same
procedure was repeated for three rounds. The presentation
order of the low- and high-payoff tasks was counterbal-
anced across the three rounds and no significant order ef-
fect was observed (F<1).
Right after completing the typing task of their choice in
each round, workers would get the chance to enter a three-
digit number of their choice into a lottery drawing; the
computer would randomly draw a number and the
MTurker who submitted that number would earn an
Amazon gift card. The value of the gift card depended on
each individual’s choice of task in that round. Finally,
workers responded to the busyness measure (“In general,
how busy do you think you are?” 1 ¼Not busy at all;
7¼Very busy) adapted from Wilcox et al. (2016). After
the HIT was completed, a fixed wage of 65 cents was de-
posited into each worker’s account. The winners of the lot-
teries also received Amazon gift cards of the value
specified in the chosen lotteries.
Results and Discussion
Pretests. To check the effectiveness of our urgency ma-
nipulation and importance operationalization, we recruited
a separate group of participants (N¼50), presented them
with instructions identical to those used in the first round
of the urgency condition of the main experiment, and asked
them to rate the urgency and importance of each of the two
tasks (i.e., “To what extent do you consider Task Y/Z to be
urgent (i.e., involving a short completion window)?”
1¼Not urgent at all, 7 ¼Very urgent; “To what extent do
you consider Task Y/Z to be important (i.e., involving a
high payoff)?” 1 ¼Not important at all; 7 ¼Very impor-
tant). Indeed, Task Z was considered significantly more ur-
gent (M¼5.40, SD ¼1.99 vs. M¼2.98, SD ¼1.95;
t(49) ¼5.60, p<.001; d¼.79) and less important than
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Task Y (M¼4.48, SD ¼1.72 vs. M¼5.26, SD ¼1.61;
t(49) ¼3.30, p¼.002; d¼.47). Participants also rated task
difficulty (“To what extent do you consider Task Y/Z to be
difficult?” 1 ¼Not difficult at all; 7 ¼Very difficult) and
no difference was found (M¼3.90, SD ¼1.54 vs. M
¼3.66, SD ¼1.67; t(49) ¼.83, p¼.41; d¼.12).
Task Choice. Although the important task (i.e., the task
that offered a chance to win a $25 gift card) clearly domi-
nates the unimportant task (i.e., the task that offered a
chance to win a $20 gift card), the mere urgency effect pre-
dicts that workers would be more likely to perform the
low-payoff assignment when its expiration time was
5 minutes as compared to 50 minutes. Consistent with this
prediction, in total, participants worked on more low-
payoff tasks in the urgency condition (M¼1.08,
SD ¼1.10) than in the control condition (M¼.57,
SD ¼.84, t(400) ¼5.28, p<.001).
Unpacking this effect, in the first round, 33.7% of all
workers in the urgency condition chose to work on the
low-payoff task (vs. 17.7% in the control condition;
v
2
(1) ¼13.39, p¼.001, u¼.18); by the end of the second
round, 51.3% of all workers in the urgency condition chose
to work on the low-payoff tasks at least once (vs. 30.5% in
the control condition; v
2
(1) ¼17.85, p<.001, u¼.21); by
the end of the last round, 58.8% of all workers in the ur-
gency condition chose to work on the low-payoff tasks at
least once (vs. 38.4% in the control condition;
v
2
(1) ¼16.69, p<.001, u¼.20). Further, within each
round, significantly more workers chose to work on the
low-payoff task in the urgency condition than in the control
condition (Round 1: 33.0% vs. 18.5%, v
2
(1) ¼11.63,
p¼.001, u¼.17; Round 2: 39.4% vs. 19.4%,
v
2
(1) ¼19.71, p<.001, u¼.22; Round 3: 35.7% vs.
20.2%, v
2
(1) ¼11.98, p¼.001, u¼.17).
Busyness as Moderator. To examine whether busyness
moderates the magnitude of the mere urgency effect, we
conducted a linear regression using the number of times
that each worker worked on the lower-payoff task as the
dependent variable, and using time frame (control ¼0,
urgency ¼1), busyness, and the interaction term of time
frame and busyness as the independent variables. The re-
gression revealed a significant interaction effect (B ¼.15,
SE ¼.07; t(398) ¼2.24, p¼.026). The main effects of
time frame (B ¼–.15, SE ¼.32; t(398) ¼–.47, p¼.638)
and busyness (B ¼–.06, SE ¼.05; t(398) ¼–1.30,
p¼.194; see figure 5) were not significant.
FIGURE 5
IMPACT OF TIME FRAME AND PERCEIVED BUSYNESS ON TASK CHOICE (EXPERIMENT 4)
ZHU, YANG, AND HSEE 685
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To decompose this interaction, we further conducted a
floodlight analysis to identify the range of busyness for
which the simple effect of the manipulation was significant
(Spiller et al. 2013). This analysis revealed a significant
positive effect of urgency on the number of lower-payoff
tasks completed for participants whose busyness rating was
higher than 2.92 (B
JN
¼.28, SE ¼.14, p¼.05), but not for
those whose busyness rating was lower than 2.92 (see
figure 5).
Discussion. Notably, in this study, the mere illusion of
task expiration led the majority of workers to choose the
low-payoff task at least once (58.8%, Chi-square against
equal expected pr oportions ¼6.16, p¼.01). Further, the
mere urgency effect is prevalent, robust, and persistent across
all of the three trials. This finding sheds light on the real-
world circumstances where one might repeatedly ignore
what is important (e.g., postponing a medical checkup, which
could potentially save our lives by diagnosing cancer at an
early, curable stage) to pursue what is urgent (e.g., working
on conference submissions whose deadlines are approaching
soon, or rushing to the store whose sale will end in hours), in-
stead of learning from past suboptimal decisions over time.
In addition, the results of experiment 4 show that the mere
urgency effect was more pronounced among workers who
perceived themselves as busy in general. These findings pro-
vide further support for the proposed attention-based ac-
count. That is, people who are high in perceived busyness
tend to be tuned into the time dimension (Shah et al. 2012),
chronically paying more attention to task expiration time,
and therefore are more susceptible to the impact of time
frames. More specifically, in this case, professional contrac-
tual workers chose low-payoff assignments (and therefore
opted for a lottery prize that was $5 less, a difference equiva-
lent to 7.69 times their full wage specified in the current con-
tract) more often and as a consequence received less reward
for the same workload, merely due to spurious urgency.
GENERAL DISCUSSION
Taken together, results from five experiments provide
compelling support for the mere urgency effect, a tendency
to pursue urgency over importance even when potential
normative reasons are controlled for. Employing a simpli-
fied and flexible paradigm, we demonstrate that people are
more likely to perform unimportant tasks over important
tasks that are clearly dominating in terms of payoffs, when
the unimportant tasks are merely characterized by spurious
urgency. Our findings are robust in real choices made by
college students and contractual workers and across vari-
ous ways of operationalizing importance and urgency.
We uncover the underlying mechanism through which
people make tradeoffs between urgent and important tasks:
the restricted time frame embedded in urgent tasks elicits
attention, diverting focus away from the magnitudes of
task outcomes, and thereby leads people to exhibit the
mere urgency effect. In other words, the mere urgency ef-
fect arises from the relative difference of attention between
time and outcome. Consistently, the relative attentional fo-
cus captured through both indirect thought listing proce-
dure (experiment 2A) and direct self-reported measures
(experiment 2B) mediated the mere urgency effect. Further
evidence for the attention-based account comes from ex-
periment 3, which showed that experimentally shifting at-
tention to outcome attenuates the mere urgency effect. By
contrast, experiment 4 identifies a condition showing that
the mere urgency effect was more pronounced among peo-
ple who perceive themselves as busy in general. This
occurs because busy people tend to be more tuned into the
time dimension, thus chronically paying more attention to
task expiration time. In addition, we explored the potential
role of general attentional constraints that are not specific
to outcome or time (see the web appendix). The results
revealed that decreased attentional capacity due to the im-
position of cognitive load could impair one’s ability to dif-
ferentiate between the tasks at hand, resulting in
indifference toward the urgent and important tasks.
Open Questions and Future Research Directions
The current work opens up several avenues for further
research. First, people behave as if pursuing urgent tasks
has its own appeal, beyond their objective consequences:
the heightened attention evoked by a restricted time frame
is potent enough to divert people’s focus away from task
outcomes, consequently increasing their likelihood of pursu-
ing tasks that are transparently inferior in terms of objective
value. We speculated that task urgency activates an urge to
resolve the disutility (e.g., discomfort or distraction) result-
ing from the involuntary attentional focus on time frames,
and task completion satisfies this urge. Future investigations
on the positive versus negative affective consequences of ur-
gency could yield important insights.
Second, choice restriction can result from both time
scarcity (i.e., the immediate time frame of an option) and
quantity scarcity (i.e., the limited availability of an option)
(Botti et al. 2008). Although the current research focuses
only on time scarcity, we expect that a similar restriction
effect may emerge for quantity scarcity through the same
attention process. That is, the manipulation of quantity
scarcity might also elicit greater attention to the scarcity of
quantity and in turn lead people to pursue scarce, low-
payoff options over nonscarce, high-payoff options. Future
research could examine whether people exhibit a similar
tendency when facing quantity scarcity. Also of note is that
we have defined task importance specifically in association
with outcome magnitudes in this research. Yet the term im-
portance itself could take on a broader meaning. For exam-
ple, consumers may perceive an urgent task that requires
immediate responsiveness to be more important. Likewise,
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an important task that is characterized by big outcome
magnitudes may be considered as carrying more urgency.
Future research could further explore the potential nuanced
interplay between consumers’ subjective feelings of impor-
tance and urgency, as well as other drivers of importance
and urgency perceptions beyond what are documented in
the current work—that is, outcome magnitudes and com-
pletion windows, respectively.
Further, the current research investigates the effect of ur-
gency on task choice, and has demonstrated that people are
more likely to choose unimportant tasks (i.e., tasks with
objectively lower payoffs) over important tasks (i.e., tasks
with objectively better payoffs) when the unimportant tasks
are characterized merely by spurious urgency (e.g., an illu-
sion of expiration). Will spurious urgency continue to oper-
ate and influence other downstream consequences (e.g.,
task performance, persistence) beyond task choice? We be-
lieve this question is important and worthy of future explo-
ration. Our analyses of the performance data yield mixed
preliminary evidence for the possibility that spurious ur-
gency might affect task performance. As shown in the web
appendix, whereas the urgency manipulation enhanced per-
formance in experiments 2B and 4, it decreased perfor-
mance in experiment 3, and had no impact on performance
in experiment 2A, suggesting that there exist potential
moderators. One moderator, we suspect, is the length of
the task. When the task is shorter, the effect of urgency on
task performance might be more pronounced.
Theoretical and Practical Implications
The present research contributes to the recent theoretical
developments on how choice restrictions impact judgment
and decision making (Botti et al. 2008;Cannon,
Goldsmith, and Roux forthcoming;Hamilton et al. 2018;
Johar, Meng, and Wilcox 2018;Kristofferson et al. 2016;
Mehta and Zhu 2016;Roux, Goldsmith, and Bonezzi 2015;
Zhu and Ratner 2015). While prior research on commodity
theory has made considerable progress in understanding
how scarcity of an option enhances its perceived value and
demand (Brehm 1966;Brock 1968;Brock and Brannon
1992;Worchel et al. 1975), our research documents a
novel restriction effect that holds above and beyond the ex-
tant scarcity effects by showing that people still pursue a
restricted option even when it is unequivocally dominated
by a nonrestricted alternative. Our results support the
emerging view that restrictions influence preference by ac-
tivating an arousing state and thereby systematically
changing the allocation of attentional resources (Cialdini
2009;Shah et al. 2012;Zhu and Ratner 2015), rather than
by increasing cognitive processing on the restricted options
per se. Our empirical findings are also in a broad sense
consistent with fuzzy trace theory (Brainerd and Reyna
1990;Rivers, Reyna, and Mills 2008), which suggests that
restrictions might lead people to encode choice alternatives
based on “gist representations” that “often incorporate
emotion including valence, arousal,” as opposed to
“deliberation and precise analysis” of verbatim details of
the information provided (Rivers et al. 2008, 107).
The present research also contributes to the prior work
on the interplay between time pressure and information
processing. Previous research on time pressure has mainly
focused on situations where consumers do not have a suffi-
cient amount of time to make a decision. The present re-
search adds to this line of research by exploring spurious
task urgency—that is, situations where consumers always
have a sufficient amount of time to make a decision and to
finish a task. Our attention-based account also provides a
plausible explanation for some of the prior findings uncov-
ered by the eye-tracking methodology, such as the phe-
nomenon that the search process under time pressure is
random with respect to value, and the observation that
options with higher value are not more likely to be noticed
(Pieters and Warlop 1999;Reutskaja et al. 2011). In addi-
tion, the present findings are relevant as well to the existing
literature on procrastination. Prior work suggests that peo-
ple tend to procrastinate on tasks that involve high short-
run costs (O’Donoghue and Rabin 2001), nonimmediate
rewards (Frederick et al. 2002;McClure et al. 2004), or
goals that are distant from completion (Kivetz et al. 2006).
Our research indicates that procrastination may persist
even when such factors are controlled for, especially in sit-
uations where people are faced with competing tasks that
are characterized by shorter time frames or even a mere il-
lusion of expiration.
Finally, the mere urgency effect demonstrated in this re-
search has significant practical implications for individual
decision makers, managers, and policy makers. Our find-
ings help individuals understand when and why suboptimal
consequences might occur in daily tradeoff decisions be-
tween urgency and importance. Once we appreciate that at-
tention is drawn to urgency, we see how this innate
propensity can lead to suboptimal consequences beyond
what is documented in the current research (i.e., earning
fewer chocolates, making less money, and winning a
lower-value gift card). We may sacrifice health, family,
and other important aspects of our lives in order to focus
on less significant activities with shorter completion win-
dows, especially when we seem to be working more and
perceive ourselves to be busier. Our findings also offer
clear implications for managers and policy makers who
seek to increase the long-term well-being and productivity
of their employees and our society. Our research suggests
that interventions that shift people’s attention away from
the completion windows to the final outcomes of everyday
tasks should be particularly effective at attenuating the
mere urgency effect, leading us to invest more time and ef-
fort in activities that matter most to our well-being as well
as the long-run welfare of our institutions, communities,
and society as a whole.
ZHU, YANG, AND HSEE 687
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DATA COLLECTION INFORMATION
The second author supervised the collection of data for
experiment 1 by research assistants at the University of
Florida during fall 2015. The first author supervised the col-
lection of data for experiments 2–4 by research assistants at
Johns Hopkins University through Mechanical Turk during
fall 2015 (experiment 3), spring 2016 (experiments 2B), and
spring 2017 (experiments 2A and 4). All data were analyzed
jointly by the first and the second authors.
APPENDIX A: SAMPLE
RANDOMIZATION PROCEDURE
(EXPERIMENT 1—CONTROL
CONDITION)
Please click “CONTINUE” to let the system randomly de-
cide the bonus level of each task.
The system has randomly assigned the bonus level for
Task A and Task B.
You can earn 6 points for each review you write for Task A.
You can earn 10 points for each review you write for Task B.
Both tasks will take exactly 5 minutes to complete and ex-
pire in 24 hours. And they do not differ in terms of difficulty.
APPENDIX B: SAMPLE
RANDOMIZATION PROCEDURE
(EXPERIMENT 1—URGENCY
CONDITION)
Please click “CONTINUE” to let the system randomly de-
cide the bonus level of each task.
The system has randomly assigned the bonus level for
Task A and Task B.
You can earn 6 points for each review you write for Task A.
You can earn 10 points for each review you write for Task B.
Please click “CONTINUE” to let the system randomly
assign the availability of the two tasks.
The system has completed the random assignment for
task availability.
Task A will expire in 10 minutes.
Task B will expire in 24 hours.
Both tasks will take exactly 5 minutes to complete and
they do not differ in terms of difficulty.
APPENDIX C: SAMPLE
RANDOMIZATION PROCEDURE
(EXPERIMENT 2 A—CONTROL
CONDITION)
Please click “CONTINUE” to let the system randomly de-
cide the bonus level of each task.
The system has randomly assigned the bonus level for
Task A and Task B.
You can earn a bonus of 12 cents by completing Task A.
You can earn a bonus of 16 cents by completing Task B.
Both tasks will take exactly 3minutes to complete and expire
in 50 minutes. And they do not differ in terms of difficulty.
APPENDIX D: SAMPLE
RANDOMIZATION PROCEDURE
(EXPERIMENT 2 A—URGENCY
CONDITION)
Please click “CONTINUE” to let the system randomly decide
the bonus level of each task and the availability of the two tasks.
688 JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH
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The system has randomly assigned the bonus level for
Task A and Task B.
You can earn a bonus of 12 cents by completing Task A.
You can earn a bonus of 16 cents by completing Task B.
The system has completed the random assignment for
task availability.
Task A will expire in 5 minutes.
Task B will expire in 50 minutes.
Both tasks will take exactly 3 minutes to complete and
they do not differ in terms of difficulty.
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