Can we really predict our own behaviour?

[Image credit: Max Pixel]

Do you sometimes receive gift vouchers, but they expire before you use them? Do you think it would be better if businesses extended their expiry periods? You're not alone. A study by the University of Cincinnati estimates that the total value of money lost on unused gift vouchers is close to US$2 billion. Due to this, some consumer groups have called for a change to the law requiring retailers to further extend the expiration dates in an effort to give people more time to redeem them. Sounds good, right? It's win-win. Your loved one's gift is enjoyed rather than wasted and the business gets to share their services/products with you. Surely if we were given a lot more time to use our gift vouchers, we would use them all... The University conducted a fascinating experiment to test this seemingly obvious fact - how does an expiration date affect our consumer behaviour? Study participants were given gift vouchers for a coffee and cake at a local high-end cafe that were exactly the same monetarily, the only difference was the expiration date. One group received a voucher valid for 2 months and the other group received a voucher valid for only 3 weeks. When they were given their gift vouchers, participants were asked how they felt about the expiration date and whether or not they believed they would redeem it before it expired. Those with a 2-month gift voucher reported much more positive feelings than the 3-week gift voucher holders. Clearly, people appear to like the greater flexibility that the longer expiration date offers. Interestingly, close to 70% of those with a 2-month expiration said they would definitely use it compared to roughly 50% with the 3-week expiration. The results were actually very surprising. Even though participants with the 2-month gift vouchers had such positive feelings about the gift, even though so many reported they would definitely redeem the voucher before its expiration, even though the voucher was for something enjoyable and fun, the results were in! Five times as many participants with the 3-week gift vouchers redeemed their vouchers before expiration compared to the 2-month gift voucher holders! But why? And why would the participants' predictions of their own behaviour be so wrong? The University attributed the results of the study principally to procrastination.

Those that did not redeem their voucher by the expiration date were most likely to agree with statement such as:

  • I got too busy or ran out of time

  • I kept thinking that I would do it a bit later

As opposed to:

  • I forgot

  • I don't like sweets

  • It seemed like too much effort

Typically procrastination is associated with tasks that people find boring or otherwise not enjoyable, but it turns out that often times we are just as likely to put off until tomorrow activities that we actually find fun. People seem to believe that their current busy-ness is only temporary, and once they get over this hump then they will be able to catch up on all the fun stuff they have been putting off. Unfortunately what invariably happens is once they've finished that task, another fills its place and they (we!) will be just as busy in the future. What should we do about it? Even if you have time before a looming deadline, get onto it now. If it's a boring essay that's not due for 3 months, do it now. If it's quality time with the family that you can do later, do it now. Those study participants had 2-months and they didn't rush either.... the vouchers ended up going unused. Again. Instead of adding everything to Tomorrow's To Do List, add it to today's. One of my favourite sayings is: "Why put off until tomorrow, what you can do today?"

Have a wonderful week,

Erika Gilbert

The Income Organisers

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