Here’s my column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to email@example.com
What should I do about parking? I have trouble deciding whether I should go for a paid parking lot straight away or drive around in the hope of finding free parking—but at the risk of wasting time.
This is a question about the value of your time. You need to figure out how much money an hour of fun out of the house is worth to you and compare that cost with the time it takes to find a parking spot. For example, if an hour out of the house is worth $25 to you, and searching for parking takes 30 minutes on average, then any amount less than $12.50 that the parking lot charges you is worth it. As the number of people in your car rises, the value of parking quickly also rises because the waste of time and reduction of value accumulate across all the people in your group.
Another computational approach is to compare the misery you feel from paying for parking with the misery you feel while seeking a spot. If the misery from payment isn’t as great as the unhappiness from your wasted time, you should go for the parking lot. But if you do this, you shouldn’t ignore the potential misery you would feel if you paid for parking and then found a free spot just outside your destination. Personally, the thought of time wasted is so unbearable to me that I usually opt for paid parking.
Yet another approach is to put all the money that you intend to spend on going out in an envelope in advance. As you’re on the way to the restaurant or movie theater, decide whether that money would be better spent on parking or other goods. Is it worth it to forgo that extra-large popcorn if paying for parking will get you to the theater on time? That makes the comparison clearer between what you get (quick parking and more time out) and what you give up.
When going to dinner with friends, what is the best way to split the bill?
There are basically three ways to split the bill. The first is for everyone to pay for what they’ve had, which in my experience ends the meal on a particularly low point. Every person has to become an accountant. Given the importance of endings in how we frame our memories of experiences, this is a particularly bad approach. Rather than remembering how delicious the crème brûlée was, you may be more likely to remember that Suzie ate most of it even though you paid for half.
The second approach is to share the bill equally, which works well when people eat (more or less) the same amount.
The third approach, my favorite, is to have one person pay for everyone and to alternate the designated payer with each meal. If you go out to eat with a group relatively regularly, it winds up being a much better solution. Why? (A) Getting a free meal is a special feeling. (B) The person paying for everyone does not suffer as much as his or her friends would if they paid individually. And (C) the person buying may even benefit from the joy of giving.
Let’s take the example of two friends, Jaden and Luca, who are going out to their favorite Middle Eastern restaurant. If they were to divide the cost of the meal evenly, each would feel, say, 10 units of misery. But if Jaden pays, Luca would have zero units of misery and the joy of a free meal. Because of diminishing sensitivity as the amount of money paid increases, Jaden would suffer fewer than 20 units of misery—maybe 15 units. On top of that, he might even get a boost in happiness from getting to buy his dear friend a meal.
I play in a weekly nine-hole golf league. There’s one individual who constantly talks on his cellphone, moves around while others are putting and mostly ignores the courtesies of golf. He’s been asked to stop this behavior but continues with a bully attitude. How do I handle it?
Though you might be tempted to rip the phone from his hands, throw it on the ground and bash it with your 9-iron, I would suggest another solution.
You could implement a new rule, whereby everyone else playing with you earns a mulligan (a “do over” shot) each time the bully talks on the phone. Getting constant negative feedback (in addition to giving everyone a performance boost) would probably whip him into shape. Just be sure to take the mulligans consistently, every time he’s on the phone, so that his behavior is reliably punished and the message sticks.
The concept of opportunity cost can be seen in the emergent societal dilemma presented by Rebecca Black through her insightful lyrics:
“Kickin’ in the front seat
Sittin’ in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up
Which seat can I take?”
As we can see, Rebecca must choose between kicking in the front seat and sitting in the back seat – two mutually exclusive options where her choice of either eliminates the opportunity to choose the other.
The same evaluation of opportunity cost can be seen in monetary exchanges that we make every day. In my dissertation work, I’ve focused on when consumers are more or less likely to reframe purchase decisions (like “Do I buy Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ or not?”) as allocation decisions (like “Do I buy Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday,’ or do I spend my money on something else instead?”).
Two important drivers are:
1) how constrained consumers feel
2) how much their resources bring other purchases to mind
First, I find that when consumers face more constraints, they are more likely to incorporate other purchases into their decisions. This constraint can be driven by cash on hand, annual income, or even the cycle on which you are paid. People paid weekly face less constraints on average (at least until the end of the month) than those paid monthly. As a result, those paid monthly are more likely to think “Do I buy this CD or not?” whereas those paid weekly are more likely to think “Do I buy this CD or do I spend my money on something else instead?”
Second, consumers can actually be more likely to fixate on their opportunity costs when they use resources with specific associations. Think about spending a Starbucks gift card versus a Visa gift card to buy Rebecca Black’s CD (imagining that it could be on the eclectic menu of CDs at Starbucks). The Starbucks gift card immediately makes you think about the coffee you could buy, so the decision changes from “Do I buy the CD or not?” to “Do I buy the CD or coffee?” The Visa gift card could be used to buy nearly anything but it doesn’t make you think about something else in particular, so the decision remains “Do I buy the CD or not?” What does this mean in practice? Starbucks coffee lovers are actually more likely to spend the Visa gift card than the Starbucks gift card even though the Visa gift card could be used to buy anything – including a Starbucks gift card!
Here at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we see these factors at play constantly — and not just when spending money. At the beginning of the day, I have plenty of time (or convince myself of that at least), so the decision to write a blog post is “Do I write it or not?” but at the end of the day, the decision is “Do I write it now, or do I work on my paper, or do I watch the ‘Friday’ video, or do I go to sleep?” Some times of day have specific associations, so at 10:00am, the question may be “Do I write the blog post or not?” whereas as at 12:00pm, the question is “Do I write the blog post or do I eat lunch?” Take a guess when I finally got around to writing this… But our discussion of procrastination will have to wait for another day.
For more details, see “Opportunity Cost Consideration,” forthcoming in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.