Every day, people make dozens of choices about how to deploy mental effort and where to focus. Do we give attention to work or play? Should we exercise or zone out in front of the TV?
The decisions we make appear to underrate the importance of attention, according to the results of a study. A group of researchers including Chicago Booth’s Eric Zwick find that we often make irrational decisions, undervaluing how much attention is worth relative to distractions.
“Imagine a spectrum between ‘we’re totally lost and clueless’ on one side and ‘we’re a human computer’ on the other,” Zwick explains. “I’d say we’re maybe one-third of the way toward the human computer.”
The “rational inattention” theory assumes that people fully understand the consequences of, say, scrolling through Instagram instead of hunkering down and writing that report—and that we choose where and how best to put our attention. To test it, the researchers ran three experiments that gave people the opportunity to reduce the demands on their mental bandwidth.
For the first experiment, they asked nearly 1,400 US students enrolled in an online coding class to complete three 15-minute coding lessons each week. The students were rewarded monetarily for completing the lessons, with a randomized range of bonuses between $1 and $5. To help make completing the tasks easier, the researchers offered students a plan-making tool to block out three 15-minute windows on their online calendars.
The researchers—interested in nudges that could help people build good habits—find that students who used the tool were more likely to complete the tasks and get the financial reward, but adoption of the tool depended on the incentives. As the incentives for completing the weekly lessons increased, so did the tool-adoption rate. This makes sense: the more you get out of doing something, the more likely you are to invest in making sure you complete the task. However, more participants should have used the planning tool, according to the theory. The fact that they didn’t led researchers to conclude that participants undervalued it.
In the second experiment, the researchers offered financial bonuses to 2,300 participants to complete an online survey. The catch? The survey wouldn’t be sent to them for anywhere from two days to six weeks. To help participants complete the survey and earn their bonuses of $3–$12, the researchers offered to send a set of three reminder emails, gauging participants’ willingness to pay for them. But as in the first experiment, they find that participants undervalued the reminders.