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Sunday, March 31, 2013

The mere thought of it..

Can simply asking about your intent to engage in a specific behavior increase your likelihood of engaging in that behavior?  What if you were asked if you plan on going on a bike ride or a hike in the coming month, do you think being asked such a question will make you more likely to do these things in the near future?  Most of us would consider such a question ridiculous because we believe that we are in conscious control of our actions and preferences.  However, when put to the test, studies by behavioral scientists often show that our intuitions, justifications, and reasoning for our actions and choices are often wrong because we aren't aware of numerous environmental factors that can influence our behavior.

An example of such an intuition-breaking study was carried out by Jonathan Levav of Columbia University and Gavan J. Fitzsimons of Duke University.  These scientists set out to investigate the "mere measurement effect," which states that when individuals are asked about a specific kind of behavior, they are more likely to engage in that behavior in the future.  Much like most other research in the field of Behavioral Economics, Levav and Fitzimons came back with intriguing results.

The authors discovered that merely asking a question about a specific behavior does in fact make it more likely that people might engage in that behavior.  Levav and Gavan asked survey participants whether they plan to floss or read for pleasure more frequently in the upcoming 2 weeks. For the control group, the authors asked participants how often they think their friends will engage in these behaviors.  The rationale being that the mere-measurement effect will be active in the experimental group and not the control group because the experimental group would be visualizing themselves, not others, engaging in these behaviors. After 2 weeks, the authors asked the same participants to report on the frequency at which they engaged in these 2 behaviors.  As they expected, Levav and Gavan found statistically significant results in the experimental group and not the control group.

 The authors continued with further experiments that I won't outline here. They concluded that the "simple act of stating one’s intent to engage in a behavior is associated with an increased likelihood of subsequently engaging in the behavior when it is easy to mentally represent or imagine. Participants asked their intention to engage in a behavior were more likely to enact the behavior when mentally simulating it was an easier task."

The findings here can be applied in a variety of settings. In the environmental context, questionnaires and surveys can be used to promote higher levels of environmentally-conscious behavior.  For instance, utility and waste collection companies can send out email surveys or paper surveys asking their ratepayers how much they plan to recycle in the coming month or how much water they plan to conserve. Merely asking these questions should have a positive effect on the incidence of these behaviors because the participants would mentally visualize and simulate ways on how they would go about in engaging in these actions. These visual representations should theoretically make it more likely that they will engage in the desired behaviors.  Such tactics can potentially be cost-effective ways of promoting behavioral change.


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