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Do You Read the Book Before You Watch the Movie? Or After?

July 22, 2014

Do You Read the Book Before You Watch the Movie? Or After?

I tend to read a lot of research studies because I like to keep up with the latest research and consider how it might apply to real-life workplaces. I also read articles in mainstream newspapers and magazines that summarize and interpret research findings, and sometimes I am curious enough to read the original research study that inspired it. This is similar to watching the movie, and then reading the book. When you read the book later, you often find characters and storylines that were missing in the movie, and sometimes the ending is changed. I rarely read a research study then try to find a reference to it in the popular media, which would be like reading the book and then seeing if anyone made a movie from it. Today, I did just that, and it was an enlightening process.

The research study was called “Pre-crastination: Hastening subgoal completion at the expense of extra physical effort”, published in Psychological Science (Rosenbaum, Gong, & Potts, 2014). The study looked at whether people were likely to exert minimum physical effort when asked to perform a task. Here’s how the experiment was designed. Participants had to walk 16 feet down an alley. They were instructed to pick up a bucket on the way, and deposit it at the end of the alley. The buckets were on both the left and the right, and participants could decide whether to pick up the first one they passed (which meant carrying it further) or pick up one closer to the end (carrying it a shorter distance). The researchers were astonished to find that people tended to pick up the bucket closer to them when they started, hence carrying it further. When they asked the participants why they selected the first bucket, they were told they picked the closer bucket to get the task done sooner. There were nine experiments in all, with some variations of how far apart the buckets were placed, etc. From this, the authors concluded that there was “an overwhelming tendency to pre-crastinate”, defined as doing tasks as soon as possible. Their explanation was that the participants chose to pick up the first bucket, because it was easier to make a bigger physical effort than to exert the mental strain of remembering that they were supposed to pick up a bucket before they got to the end.

After reading the study, I wasn’t at all sure that I would have interpreted the results so broadly. I could think of many other explanations of why the participants might have picked up the first bucket and carried it further.  For example:

  • The weights were light and the distance was short. In the different experiments, the buckets were either empty, or they weighed 3.5lbs or 7lbs.  The distance to carry was always less than 16 feet.  The participants were all students.  It would be no great effort to carry a 7lb weight a distance of 16 feet.
  • The students were receiving course credit for participating. They might have felt that they should make a bit more effort for their credit.
  • The students might also have been trying to impress one of the researchers, showing how they didn’t always try to take the easy way out, or that they were strong and fit.
  • I found it hard to buy into the “extra mental effort” conclusion. The students only had one thing to do – walk down the alley and pick up a bucket. They weren’t being asked to do mental arithmetic on the way.

I couldn’t help thinking that a more realistic way of assessing whether these students had a tendency to “pre-crastinate” would be to see if they routinely completed and handed in their class assignments at the earliest opportunity. This wouldn’t have been a controlled experiment, more of a case study, but it might have been practical.

Equally interesting to me was how the research study was interpreted and reported in the New York Times. The article was called “Sometimes, early birds are too early” (Richtel, 2014). The second paragraph reads as follows:

 “There is an overwhelming tendency to precrastinate,” according to a paper published in May in the journal Psychological Science. The behavior might include answering trivial emails, for example, or paying bills far ahead of time. “It’s an irrational choice,” the paper said, but it also reflects the significant trade-offs people make to keep from feeling overwhelmed.

The italics in the second sentence are mine. How, I wonder, did they get from carrying buckets to answering emails and paying bills? The research study didn’t look at all at those activities. The newspaper article did not mention how light the buckets were—and in fact referred to them as “filled with pennies”. I have a large jar of pennies waiting to go to Coinstar that I just weighed—over 25lbs. So a bucket with pennies weighing only 7lb can’t have been close to full. The author concluded “People appear wired to incur a significant physical cost to eliminate a mental burden”. It is possible that is true. However, the study did not prove that, since the physical effort was far from significant. He also concluded “the subjects were eliminating the need to remember to do it later … freeing their brains to focus on other potential tasks”. Again, possibly true, but not proven by the study because the participants were not being asked to do anything else. A different study would be needed to reach those conclusions.

I felt that reading the research study and then reading the New York Times article was rather like reading the book and then watching the movie. You notice the characters and storylines that are missing, characters that don’t look or sound the way the author described them, or the way you imagined they would. Movies can follow the book closely, or they can be a loose interpretation. So too with newspaper articles.


Ritchel, M. (2014). Sometimes, early birds are too early. New York Times, July 19, 2014.

Rosenbaum, D.A. Gong, L. & Potts, C.A. (2014). Pre-crastination: Hastening subgoal completion at the expense of extra physical effort. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1487-1496.

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