Increasing self-control by appreciating nothing

A simple way to help you (and your children) resist temptation.

Posted Sep 21, 2009

Here’s a very scrumptious dilemma for you:

Would you rather have:

a) One cookie now?

OR

b) Two cookies an hour from now?

Most people faced with this sort of dilemma have difficultly resisting the immediate reward. Researchers Eran Magen, Carol Dweck, and James Gross recently suggested a novel explanation for this type of self-control failure (here's a link to the article). They call it the Hidden-Zero Effect. According to the hidden zero effect, presenting options such as whether to have a smaller amount of something (good) now versus a larger amount later on obscures the downsides to both options. The downsides are that you will not get anything either (a) later on if you choose the first option or (b) right now if you choose the second option. In other words, the zero amounts associated with each option are not explicitly stated.

Here’s a version of the above dilemma that is logically identical, but also makes the zero amounts explicit.

Would you rather have:

a) One cookie now and zero cookies an hour from now?

OR

b) Zero cookies now and two cookies an hour from now?

Even though these options are basically the same as those in the first example, explicitly stating the zero amounts makes people much more likely to choose Option B. What’s going on? Mentioning the zeros focuses our attention on the costs of each choice, not just the rewards. Option B also conveys that things are going to get better over time (0 then 2), whereas Option A suggests just the opposite (1 then 0). Not surprisingly, we like the idea that our fortunes are improving rather than getting worse. Both of these elements are missing in the opening example where the zeros are hidden.

To demonstrate this effect in the lab, participants in Magen et al.’s studies were given a choice between getting a certain amount of money now or a larger amount later on. Participants were significantly more likely to choose the immediate reward when the choice was presented with the zero amounts hidden (you can have $5.00 now or $6.20 in 26 days), than they were when the zero amounts were explicitly stated (you can have $5.00 now and $0.00 in 26 days or $0.00 now and $6.20 in 26 days). This effect was pretty reliable – it didn’t matter whether choices were between hypothetical amounts of money or real sums of money that participants were allowed to keep at the end of the study. Regardless, making the zero amounts explicit made people more likely to delay gratification to get the bigger reward.

We think this research has enormous real-world implications. One of us (JF) has a 10-month old son at home who at this stage cannot resist ANYTHING, much less understand that sometimes it is best to delay gratification in order to get larger future rewards. He just wants whatever happens to be in his field of vision – and he wants it RIGHT NOW. But before too long, he will be faced with exactly the sort of dilemmas that are influenced by the hidden zero effect. For example, he will make decisions about whether to spend his allowance on a small toy today or wait a week to save enough money to buy a much bigger toy. If he is anything like his father, he will almost always choose the small toy today, sometimes making him very sad later on when he considers the much larger toy he could have had if only he had waited. Perhaps this can be avoided by making the zeros associated with his decisions more explicit. What will he choose if he is presented these options:

a) You can get a small toy today, but then you will get no big toys next week.

OR

b) You get no toys today, but then you will get a big toy next week.

OK, we realize that the first option doesn’t technically have a zero amount (assuming he continues to get an allowance, he can always buy another small toy next week), but you get the idea. Now, if son is like father, then unfortunately he will continue to make the impulsive decision no matter how the choice is presented (Daddy has serious problems with impulse control). But assuming that some of Mommy’s genes got into the mix, then maybe, just maybe, presenting choices with explicit zero amounts will lead him to make decisions that are less impulsive and more satisfying in the long-term.

(This post was coauthored by Ilan Shrira)