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Slacking in the Middle

People are more likely to adhere to their standards at the beginning and end of a series of tasks.

By Vanessa Sumo
Photo by Dustin Whitehead
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Maferima Touré-Tillery and Ayelet Fischbach

To pass a class, a student must complete a series of assignments. A cook, planning to make a meal, will prepare several courses. Preparing for a marathon, a runner will train every day. Eager to get to their respective finish lines, each of these people must decide how closely to adhere to his or her own standards and principles when performing each task along the way.

People usually feel good about themselves when they accomplish their work honestly and conscientiously. Even so, they may choose to relax their standards at times, especially in the middle of a long series of tasks. A study by Ayelet Fishbach, Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing, and PhD student Maferima Touré-Tillery finds that people are more likely to cut corners while performing tasks in the middle of a series and less likely to cut corners on their first and final tasks. People feel freer to slack in the middle because they believe their beginning and ending achievements are better indicators of their true characters, the authors say.

In the study "The End Justifies the Means, but Only in the Middle," Fishbach and Touré-Tillery find evidence that people indeed adhere to their ethical, religious, and performance standards more carefully when beginning and ending a series of actions, believing the actions in the middle say less about who they are. "Something that is done in the middle is not really about me, and because it is not about me, it does not matter how well I perform in the middle," says Fishbach.

Why not care about the in-between tasks? One reason is that people tend to better remember the beginnings and endings of events, according to previous research on memory. Similarly, people are more likely to better remember the first few and last few numbers or words in a sequence.

If people fail to live up to the standards they set for themselves, they risk having the unpleasant experience of seeing themselves in a bad light. While Fishbach acknowledges that relaxing one's standards has financial and social consequences, her study with Touré-Tillery offers a new way to think about what drives people to work harder and perform better. "What is often neglected in research is that a large part of what makes people do things well is the implication for how they see themselves," Fishbach says.

That Wasn't Me

The study's first experiment analyzed how likely participants were to cheat in the middle of a series of ten proofreading tasks. Each participant was asked to proofread ten passages and to privately flip a coin before beginning each passage. Each coin flip determined whether the participant would proofread the short or long version of the passage. Participants knew that they could receive points for completing each proofreading task, and they knew they would receive the same number of points regardless of whether each passage they proofread was short or long. In this setting, Fishbach and Touré-Tillery suspected that some participants had cheated by reading shorter passages when they were supposed to read longer ones. The researchers could find out whether cheating had occurred by looking at the proportion of participants who reported reading the shorter passages. If the percentage turned out to be significantly higher than 50 percent, which would normally occur by chance, then some had likely cheated.

The researchers found that many of the participants were likely dishonest about the middle tasks. Close to half of participants reported that they had read a short passage for their first, second, and tenth proofreading tasks. But for tasks six and seven, about 70 percent of participants reported having read the short passage. The results suggest that people tend to stick to their ethical standards mostly at the beginning and end of a sequence of tasks.

It is possible that people who started out adhering to their standards felt like they deserved to slack off, and then they felt badly about being dishonest so behaved again at the end. In other words, the fact that research participants tended to be truthful at the beginning and end of the series in the above situation may have also reflected their behavior during each proofreading task.

To address this concern, the researchers' second experiment gave each participant only one opportunity to cheat: at the beginning, middle, or end of a series of tasks. Participants received seven images to color, along with progress cards that had seven numbered boxes. When a participant finished coloring an image, the researcher gave the participant a stamp on his or her progress card. The researcher then left the room to get the next image for the participant to complete. At one point in the experiment, the researcher returned to the room and pretended to forget that he had already stamped the participant's card. This happened after either the second (beginning), fourth (middle), or sixth (last) task. The supposedly forgetful researcher offered the participant another stamp, knowing that the participant had already received one. The researchers found that participants were more likely to accept undeserved credit when it was offered at the end of the fourth task - the one in the middle.

This pattern of upholding one's principles at the beginning and end, but not in the middle, should hold more strongly for those who care very much about living up to their standards, say Fishbach and Touré-Tillery. For example, some people adhere to religious traditions more than others, and those who are religious seem more likely to be mindful about keeping their customs and rituals, especially when they think it counts.

In another experiment, the researchers conducted a survey two days after the conclusion of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday. Jewish participants were asked whether they had lit the candles on the menorah on each night of the eight-night holiday. The researchers measured the participants' religiousness by asking if the participants kept kosher - a set of Jewish dietary rules. Jewish participants who regularly ate kosher food were more likely to care about maintaining a religious self-image. Consequently, researchers expected to hear that those participants had lit the menorah on the first and last nights of the holiday, because doing so on these evenings would affirm their commitment to their faith. Indeed, Fishbach and Touré-Tillery found that religious participants had almost always lit candles on the first and last nights of Hanukkah, but they had sometimes skipped lighting the menorah on other nights during the holiday. By contrast, Jews who were not very religious were less likely to have lit candles, regardless of whether the night was at the beginning, middle, or end of the holiday.

The researchers also found that people, eager to adhere to their standards when performing the first and last tasks in a series, are likely to produce higher-quality work during those tasks. In another experiment, the researchers asked participants to complete a series of five shape-cutting assignments. As predicted, participants acted more precisely when cutting the first and last shapes but tended to literally cut corners when cutting the shapes in the middle of the series.

The belief that tasks at the beginning and end better reflect people's abilities is what motivates people to work harder, say Fishbach and Toure-Tillery. To find firmer evidence of this relationship, the researchers looked at how participants in the same shape-cutting experiment responded to feedback. Researchers expected that the participants would pay more attention to reviews of their performance on the first and last tasks. "They are going to take that feedback more to heart," says Fishbach.

After completing all of the shape-cutting tasks, the researchers collected the shapes, left the room and returned with feedback on only one of the tasks. The participants did not know in advance that they would receive feedback on their performance, and researchers blamed the limited feedback on a time constraint. The participants were told that the quality of their work had been "above average" when it came to cutting shapes one, three, or five. They were then asked to rate their own cutting skill level, eye-hand coordination, and dexterity. Fishbach and Touré-Tillery found that feedback on the first and last cutting tasks had a greater influence on participants' self-appraisals. Participants who had received praise for the way they cut the first or last shapes subsequently rated themselves as more skillful than those who had received exactly the same feedback for cutting the shapes in the middle.

Minimizing the Middle

In another research project, Fishbach and Touré-Tillery showed how students' choice of a healthy or unhealthy snack depended on when the snack was offered - at the beginning, middle, or end of the day. When a snack offer was called "start your afternoon, have a snack" or "end your morning, have a snack," students were more likely to reach for the healthy alternative, raisins. But when the same offer was framed as "keep your day going, have a snack," most students opted for the unhealthy choice, chocolate. Setting up the snack offer as part of the middle of the day seemed to make students less uneasy about indulging and enjoying a sugar-loaded treat.

The fact that people perceive some activities as more important than others suggests that teachers or managers may want to design assignments to emphasize the beginning and ending tasks in order to motivate people to uphold their standards. For example, a manager could present a project as, or restructure an assignment to be, the first or last in a sequence in order to increase the project's perceived worth. In this case, there would be no middles, just beginnings and endings. Simply positioning assignments in this kind of way could increase the quality of a worker's output and ensure that people are working to their highest standards. 


"The End Justifies the Means, but Only in the Middle." Maferima Touré-Tillery and Ayelet Fishbach. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. August 2012.

Watch a video of Ayelet Fishbach explaining her research and read more from Capital Ideas »

Last Updated 1/16/14