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Why Having the Choice to Do Nothing Is So Important

A study that shows a sharp influence on our commitment.

We often assume that giving people the opportunity to choose what they are going to do will increase their motivation to do it. One reason many colleges give students so much autonomy is the belief that if undergraduates have selected the classes they take, they will put more effort into those classes than if subjects were simply assigned to them.

Of course, when you are actually engaged in a task (like taking a class), the alternatives you have in front of you are to work on the task—or to give up on it and do something else entirely. So perhaps it would be helpful to get people to explicitly decide that they prefer the task to doing nothing.

This possibility was explored in a paper in the March 2014 issue of Psychological Science by Rom Schrift and Jeffry Parker.

In one study, they gave participants a choice between one of two word searches in which they had to find as many words as possible in a grid. They would be paid based on the number of items they found. One search involved finding actors' names; the other involved finding capitol cities. A second group got the same two choices—as well as the option not to participate in the task at all. (Nobody chose not to participate.) A third group was given a choice of three puzzles, one of which had less-familiar terms (the names of famous ballet dancers) which no participant selected. (This last condition was there to control for the possibility that having three options rather than two mattered to the results.)

The participants given a choice between either two or three puzzles each spent about 5 minutes working on the puzzle they selected. But those who were also given the option not to participate spent about 7 minutes working on their selected puzzle. Explicitly choosing to do something rather than not to do it greatly increased the amount of time people spent on the task.

A second study demonstrated that the option to participate has to be given when people are choosing the task to perform. In this study, some participants were first told they could opt in to doing a second study as part of an experiment. After opting in (which everyone did), they selected one of two tasks. A second group was given a choice between the two tasks—or the option not to participate. Everyone in this group also agreed to participate. In this study, the two options (a perception task and a cognition task) were vague enough that all participants actually performed the same task. But once again, the participants who had to choose to do a task rather than not to do one at all spent more time on their task, and performed better, than those who first opted in and then selected a task.

Finally, a third study found that choosing to perform a task rather than doing nothing only influenced the particular task selected. In this study, some people chose one of two tasks to perform, while a second group chose a task, but had the option to do nothing (which nobody picked). Before doing the task they selected, they were given a second task in which they had to find as many differences between a pair of pictures as possible. People spent the same amount of time on this extraneous task, regardless of the choice condition they were in. But then, the participants who'd been given the option to do nothing spent more time on the actual experimental task than those just given a choice between two experimental tasks.

Putting all of this together: There seems to be real value in getting people to commit to doing a particular task by having them choose explicitly to do that task rather than doing nothing. This advantage reflects that stopping a task you've started is essentially the same as choosing to do nothing rather than the task. Of course, future research must explore whether the influence of opting against doing nothing has a long-term influence on motivation. The experimental tasks in this paper are all short. It is not clear whether opting to take classes rather than not to take any classes would affect a college student’s motivation for an entire semester.

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