Friday, August 12, 2011

Doing good requires hard work. So does feeling good about it.

There is a lot of psychology research suggesting that people prefer objects that are easy to think about than those that are hard to think about.  For example, the classic “mere exposure” effect shows that people generally prefer objects they have seen before to those that they have never seen before.  This preference arises, because it is easier for people to think about an object they have encountered before than an object that is new to them.

One explanation for the mere exposure effect is that ease of thinking causes high preference directly.  That is, there may be a biologically hard-wired connection between liking and ease of thinking. 

An article by Aparna Labroo and Sara Kim in the January, 2009 issue of Psychological Science suggests a different explanation.  Their work suggests that the ease of thinking about something is a piece of information that becomes part of the way an object is evaluated.  Under some circumstances, greater ease of thinking about an object may actually decrease people’s preference for that object.

In particular, when people are trying to satisfy an important goal, they have what Labroo and Kim call an instrumentality heuristic. People believe that a goal worth carrying out is worth working hard at.  Good things require effort.  In these situations, people actually seem to prefer objects that are hard to process.

In one clever experiment, participants were asked to evaluate whether they wanted to give a real donation to the charity Kids in Danger.  This charity promotes safety in children’s products, and was created by psychologist Boaz Keysar and his wife Linda Ginzel after one of their children was killed in a tragic accident involving a portable crib that had a design flaw.  People giving to this charity often feel that they are doing a good deed.

In this study, information about the charity was presented on a computer screen either in a font that was presented clearly on the screen or with a font that was hard to read.  In typical experiments on ease of thinking, products whose descriptions are easy to read are preferred to products whose descriptions are hard to read.  In this experiment, though, because the goal of doing good is associated with effort, people were actually more likely to give to the charity when the description was hard to read than when it was easy to read.  The difficulty of reading the description matched with people’s believes that pursuing an important goal requires effort.

More generally, this finding demonstrates that factors like the ease of thinking about an object can affect preferences for that object, but they do so by providing an additional piece of information about that object.  Whether ease of thinking increases or decreases people’s preferences depends on their goal in making a decision.