To order a gift, you might have to pay for shipping. To take an advanced course, you might have to take a prerequisite.

But people are more willing to invest in the goal itself, rather than the means to the goal, even if it leads them to overinvest, according to research by Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach and Booth PhD candidate Franklin Shaddy.

To better understand people’s priorities, the researchers asked some study participants to bid on an autographed copy of the book Misbehaving, by Chicago Booth’s Richard H. Thaler. The participants were willing to pay, on average, around $23 for the book.

But the researchers also asked others to bid on a University of Chicago fancy tote bag that contained the same autographed book—the book being the goal in this scenario, with the tote bag functioning as the means. For the book-bag bundle, participants were willing to pay only $12 on average, which underscores how much people dislike paying for means. “Our theory, which highlights the psychology of paying for goals and means, explains why—even though economically speaking this is not a rational pattern,” Shaddy says. “Note that paradox here: people asked for an $11 discount if we threw in the tote bag to the deal,” Fishbach adds.

Goals vs. means
In one experiment, participants’ willingness to pay for a chef's knife and cutting board changed based on which was presented as the goal and which as the means to the goal.

And people’s investment choices shift depending on what item is presented as a goal. In another experiment, the researchers framed purchasing a chef’s knife as the goal, and using a cutting board as the means. In another condition of the same experiment, they framed the cutting board as the goal and the knife as the means. People were willing to pay more for whichever was the goal—almost $3 more for the declared goal item.

Subsequent experiments demonstrated the same pattern even when the currency in question was time rather than money. When researchers gave participants two articles to read, telling them the first article was a means to understanding the second, the participants spent more time reading the second article—the goal—as opposed to the first. When participants were directed to understand both articles—essentially given two goals—they split their reading time equally.

The researchers suggest that the preference to invest in goals has applicability. An infrastructure investment pitch might go over better if the presenter highlights a goal, such as tourism, rather than the means of connecting cities. The same could be true for motivating students or employees to invest in their work.­

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