Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 06, 2015

Judgment and Decision Making in the Wild

Image of a confused woman with wavy-lined arrows emanating from her body

By Kaushal Addanki

Real-world applicability was a common theme in this year’s Judgment and Decision Making Preconference at SPSP 2014.  Prominent researchers gathered to discuss exciting new findings in a variety of practical, down-to-earth domains, including hand hygiene compliance in hospitals and perceptions of drafting skill in the National Football League.  Three of the twelve presentations given at the preconference are reviewed below.

netflix-treadmill-1280x853Katherine Milkman (University of Pennsylvania) began her talk about motivating virtuous behavior by discussing “shoulds” and “wants”.  “Shoulds” are things that bring long-term benefits and short-term costs, such as exercising regularly or scheduling those oft-delayed doctor’s appointments.  “Wants” are things that are appealing in the short-term but costly over time, such as eating junk food or spending time reading trashy novels.  Are “shoulds” and “wants” mutually exclusive?  Milkman argues no, stating that we can combine our “shoulds” and “wants” into single activities through a process she terms temptation bundling.  For example, people could read trashy novels while exercising, or they could play video games while they go to the doctor’s office.  Temptation bundling would encourage more healthy long-term habits by making such activities more enjoyable in the short-term.  Milkman, Kevin Volpp (University of Pennsylvania) and Julia Minson (Harvard University) tested whether temptation bundling would be effective in encouraging undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania to exercise more at the local gym.  The researchers bundled exercising (a “should”) with listening to popular audio novels such as the Hunger Games (a “want”).  Participants were assigned to one of three conditions: a full treatment condition in which participants could onlylisten to the audio novels while they were exercising at the gym, an intermediate treatment in which participants could listen to audio novels whenever they wanted to, but were encouraged to listen to them only while at the gym, and a control condition in which participants were given gift certificates worth the same as the audio novels and nothing more.  The researchers found that in the first seven weeks of the study, participants in the control condition visited the gym about 6.1 times per week on average.  In contrast, participants in the full treatment condition visited the gym 7.8 times per week on average, a rate significantly greater than that of the control condition.  (Those in the intermediate treatment visited the gym 6.5 times per week.)

Interestingly, at the end of the study, 61% of all participants indicated that if they were given a new ipod with engaging audio novels, they would pay to have this audio novel locked up in a gym locker to only be used during their workouts.  In other words, almost two-thirds of participants would be willing to pay money to have something taken away from themas part of a temptation bundling service.  One imagines that a service which combines exercising and restricted access to Netflix, or something along those lines, could potentially be both lucrative and beneficial to society.

clean hands white sink v_SMHengchen Dai (University of Pennsylvania), one of six Data Blitz speakers at the preconference, presented findings from a different domain: hand hygiene compliance in hospitals.  Though doctors are mandated to follow basic hygiene protocols such as washing their hands before and after visiting patients, they comply with such regulations less than 50% of the time.  Moreover, one out of every twenty patients will get a hygiene-related infection while in a hospital.  How could healthcare practitioners neglect such a simple practice as hand-washing?  Dai, Katherine Milkman (University of Pennsylvania), Dave Hofmann (University of North Carolina), and Bradley Staats (University of North Carolina) studied three years of electronic records from 35 hospitals documenting 4157 healthcare workers’ hand hygiene habits.  The researchers found that the average compliance rate was only 38% and that compliance decreased over the course of a typical 12-hour shift, starting at 42.6% and ending at 34.8%.  Such a drop is estimated to result in an additional 28 infections per 1000 patients, equating to a financial cost of about $575,000.  Dai argues that the rigorous nature of hospital work depletes executive resources of healthcare workers, reducing their propensity to comply with hygiene protocols.  This notion was supported by the finding that compliance rates increased for those who had longer breaks between work shifts.  Dai’s research suggests that hospitals might need to devise interventions to increase the executive resources of healthcare workers, whether by instituting longer breaks or by making the work day less taxing overall.

2012 NFL Draft - First Round Cade Massey (University of Pennsylvania) ended the preconference by discussing the skill that goes into one of the most talked-about events of the year: the NFL draft.  Every year, the 32 franchises of the National Football League each select on average seven new players from college to join their rosters.  The goal is to select those who will end up being the most productive football players.  Are there certain teams that are demonstrably better than others when it comes to choosing productive players through the draft?  Massey analyzed over fifteen years of NFL drafting history and quantified player productivity through starts, Pro Bowl appearances, and free agent value.  The research showed that teams do not seem to be differently skilled.  That is, any differences in drafting outcomes between teams are not reliable from year to year and can be adequately explained by chance rather than skill.  This is yet another example of the general phenomenon by which people dramatically underestimate the amount of uncertainty in their environments.  To many, events like the NFL draft seem more like math problems (which have a right answer) rather than lotteries (which are based on random chance).  By embracing the fact that uncertainty plays a much larger role in our lives than we anticipate, we can improve our outcomes.  For example, if you happen to be the general manager of an NFL team, it might be more prudent to trade for a large number of low-valued picks rather than a few high-valued picks.  Or, if you are seeking a job, putting out a large number of applications may be more prudent than concentrating all of your efforts on a few select positions.

So, whether it comes to motivating yourself to go to the gym in the mornings, washing your hands regularly at work, or evaluating the skill (or lack thereof) of your local sports teams’ management, Judgment and Decision Making research has a great deal to say about how we live our daily lives.

More information can be found at the preconference website.

Kaushal Addanki graduated from the University of Chicago in 2013 with a degree in Psychology.  He is currently the Assistant Lab Manager for the Decision Research Lab at the Booth School of Business.  You can reach him at

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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