Some of my research examines the role of forces that sidetrack us in the context of morality. In general, once we identify a goal we want to reach, we develop plans that can help us reach that goal. For instance, in the case of our moral goals, we may decide to volunteer regularly or spend some time each week helping others. Yet, even if our moral goals and plans are clear, subtle forces can lead us astray. Here’s an example of how this may happen. Have you or a friend ever bought a knock-off product like pair of faux “designer” sunglasses or a fake watch? If so, would you believe they may have colored the way you viewed the world—not just literally, but more fundamentally? In fact, those cheap sunglasses might have degraded your moral behavior. In a series of experiments, my colleagues Mike Norton, Dan Ariely, and I found that people were more likely to act dishonestly when they were wearing fake products, such as designer copycats. In our studies, participants who thought they were wearing knock-off sunglasses (in fact, the $300 sunglasses were quite real) were more likely to cheat on various problem-solving tasks than participants who were told they were wearing designer lenses. It seems that what we wear influences how we feel (inauthentic) and behave (dishonestly), whether we realize it or not, even when our goal is to act honestly and follow our moral compass.
But getting things done is also a matter of motivation, right? You have to really want to finish what you started.
Yes, motivation is clearly an important ingredient in following through on our plans. But, as it turns out, the same set of forces that derail our decisions can also influence our motivation to get things done. Here’s how. My colleague Scott Wiltermuth and I conducted a series of studies to examine how we could boost individuals’ motivation and effort. In our research, Scott and I varied how we framed potential rewards to study participants so that they would perceive them as belonging to two categories or only one. The categories were pure fiction: in fact, in some of our studies we put potential rewards (which consisted in a variety of useful objects, such as pens or notebooks) in two separate containers rather than in just one. And yet, the completely arbitrary categories we created affected participants’ motivation. In one study, participants were over three times as likely to work on a task for the full amount of time they were given when the potential rewards were divided into two categories.
By creating meaningless categories, we triggered a feeling in participants that they would be missing out if they did not get a reward from the second category available to them. This type of fear seems to drive many of the decisions we make in our personal and professional lives. In the case of my research with Scott, participants felt a sense of fear that they would miss out on some of the available rewards (those belonging to a different category). But this fear can be more general –from the feeling of missing out on special deals to the fear of missing out on an event our friends are attending. It explains why I often spend endless hours waiting in line so that I can be the first to see a highly rated movie or to buy the latest iPhone. And have you ever signed up for store email lists so that you won’t miss out on the latest deals? I certainly have.
What are some of the concrete techniques that you’d suggest people use to not get sidetracked?
In Sidetracked, I discuss nine forces that commonly derail our plans as we are implementing them. For each of these forces, I also discuss a principle that we can all apply to counteract the specific force. For instance, in the example from Defending Your Life that I mentioned earlier, the force that derailed Daniel’s plan was his own emotions. The principle that can help us counteract the effects that emotions have on our decisions is one I call take your emotional temperature. By taking your emotional temperature before making a decision, you can carefully consider your emotional state and ask yourself why you’re feeling this way. This will help you understand whether the emotions you are experiencing were caused by an event unrelated to the decision at hand and, independent of what caused them, you will be able to determine whether they are clouding your judgment.