Present Bias

Why is it so hard to plan for tomorrow?

From Pumpkins to Pollution: Present Bias, and why some decisions are so hard to make.

We all want a better future, don’t we? For the planet, and for ourselves. We want to tackle climate change, use less, recycle more. We want to lead healthier lives. Grow our careers. Save for our pensions. 

And we will. Definitely. Although probably – if we’re being honest – just not today.

Because, despite our good intentions, the road to a brighter tomorrow isn’t easy. Present bias stands in our way. 

Present basis is our tendency to prefer immediate rewards at the expense of long-term goals. It’s a hangover from our ancestors who, in their struggle for survival, grabbed whatever was within reach, rather than risk waiting for better opportunities in the future (because ‘future’ meant ‘less certain’). 

The trouble with instant gratification, though, is that it makes us very bad at future-planning. Money is tight for all of us, right now. But this week is Halloween and how many of us have been tempted into splashing our cash on more pumpkins than we can possibly carve? Or indulging in more seasonally-themed, extortionately-priced treats than is good for us? 

Doughnuts with lurid orange icing aren’t our only problem. Present bias makes us actively avoid confronting difficult decisions. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we may love eating doughnuts, but we hate eating frogs. 

October 31st sees the start of COP 26. Scientific consensus tells us that climate change is more than an emergency: it’s a real, in-progress catastrophe. But while we all recognise the threat cars pose to the environment, many of us will still jump into our motors to go Halloween shopping, just because it’s easier than walking, or cycling, or the bus. 

We want to do the right thing, but present bias urges us, always, to fall back on the easy option. It even helps us justify our inaction. It encourages to think of ourselves almost as two separate people – Today-Me and Tomorrow-Me. And it’s okay for Today-Me to drive because, we tell ourselves, Tomorrow-Me will make a different choice and not drive.

So that’s alright, then. As the great philosopher, Homer Simpson puts, all difficulties can be avoided by making them “a problem for Future Homer.” And, as he adds: “Man, I don’t envy that guy”.

How can we overcome present bias? One way is by using something called a commitment device. When we plan to walk or use public transport, we should tell our friends and family that’s what we’re going to do. This invokes social pressures and norms that will nudge us into sticking to the plan, to avoid feeling embarrassment. Priming ourselves, too, by saying things like “I’m doing this for the future,” will also help us stick to the plan. 

It’s all about being in the moment: making doing something TODAY the right choice. CTAs are significantly more effective when they evoke a sense of immediacy. What to know how to do this? Email us [email: contact@lynnpr.co.uk] to find out.

This article was written by Ethan McQuaid, Behavioural Data Analyst at Lynn PR.

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