Harnessing Our Inner Angels and Demons: What We Have Learned About Want/Should Conflicts and How That Knowledge Can Help Us Reduce Short-Sighted Decision Making

Authors: Katherine L. Milkman, Harvard University; Todd Rogers, Harvard University; Max H. Bazerman, Harvard University

Publication: HBS Working Paper # 5787

Year: 2007

Focus Area: Prevention, Decision Making

Relevance: Understanding the contextual factors that influence a person’s ability to successfully exercise willpower and good decision making may improve the efficacy of financial fraud prevention efforts.

Summary: This overview of the want/should literature focuses on the contextual factors that change whether people tend to choose what they want to do or what they think they should do. It also suggests lessons for individuals and policy makers.

  • Now or Later: When making choices that take effect in the future, people favor should over want, e.g. when people are making choices about what to do tomorrow they’re more likely to choose to save money, exercise, or watch edifying films than if they’re making choices about what to do today.
  • Multiple choices or One at a time: Direct comparison of two or more choices encourages people to weight them more rationally, activating the should self. But when evaluating different possibilities one at a time, individuals are more likely to favor the want option.
  • Other factors, briefly mentioned, include: “extreme cognitive load,” memorizing a seven digit as opposed to a two digit number increases likelihood of selecting a want option. “Isolated vs. series of similar future choices,” when people are told they’re making the first in a series of choices, they’re more likely to choose the want option.

Finally, the authors consider ways policy could create “conditions that will help each individual do what is in her own long-term best interest,” which often involves enabling the selection of should over want options. Mechanisms discussed include commitment devices — preventative measures to restrain the want self — e.g. piggy banks and “save more tomorrow” program, which let workers sign up to have half of future raises set aside in an investment savings account.

Author Abstract: Although observers of human behavior have long been aware that people regularly struggle with internal conflict when deciding whether to behave responsibly or indulge in impulsivity, psychologists and economists did not begin to empirically investigate this type of want/should conflict until recently. In this paper, we review and synthesize the latest research on want/should conflict, focusing our attention on the findings from an empirical literature on the topic that has blossomed over the last 15 years. We then turn to a discussion of how individuals and policy makers can use what has been learned about want/should conflict to help decision makers select far-sighted options.

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