Monday, April 25, 2011


Today in MGT 562 Behavioral Perspectives on Management, Professor Simmons gave a lecture on "Goals, Plans, and Performance," covering a fairly broad set of concepts ranging from moral licensing to the goal-gradient hypothesis. One of the studies Professor Simmons cited, a paper on partitioning and consumption, prompted me to reflect a bit on my lifestyle.

The Effects of Partitions on Controlling Consumption (Cheema and Soman, 2008)
Abstract: The authors demonstrate that partitioning an aggregate quantity of a resource (e.g., food, money) into smaller units reduces the consumed quantity or the rate of consumption of that resource. Partitions draw attention to the consumption decision by introducing a small transaction cost; that is, they provide more decision-making opportunities so that prudent consumers can control consumption. Thus, people are better able to constrain consumption when resources associated with a desirable activity (which they are trying to control) are partitioned rather than when they are aggregated. This effect of partitioning is demonstrated for the consumption of chocolates (Study 1) and gambles (Study 2). In Study 3, process measures reveal that partitioning increases recall accuracy and decision times. Importantly, the effect of partitioning diminishes when consumers are not trying to regulate consumption (Studies 1 and 3). Finally, Study 4 explores how habituation may decrease the amount of attention that partitions draw to consumption. In this context, partitions control consumption to a greater extent when the nature of partitions changes frequently.
In other words, people are much better at controlling how much chocolate they eat (or money they spend) when the chocolates (gambles) are individually wrapped. Not exactly rocket science—most of us have realized at some point mid-bite that it's much easier to overeat when inhaling almonds/frozen cheesecake/Cheez-Its/강냉이/Baskin-Robbins Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream directly from the original bag or carton.

Random side note: The first thing I thought of when Professor Simmons started talking about individually wrapped chocolates was the beautiful tins of over-packaged Japanese treats that Ms. Fujiwara used to bring my brother and me every summer. 선생님 안녕하시지요?

Still zoned out from class, I then began thinking about the "aggregate" way in which many of us lead our lives. Society encourages us to fill our lives with an endless flood of interests, activities, relationships, and other commitments. Of course, each of these is valuable in its own way, and without them, life would quickly become lonely and uninteresting. But too often, I think, we end up stuffing our days to the point of bursting and are left with little time for ourselves.

The most obvious partition dividing this stream of activity is sleep: for at least the few sweet hours every night when we're forced to lie down in horizontal silence, we have no choice but to clear our minds of commitments and timetables. (Well, unless I keep having this bizarre dream about sitting down to watch a parade of friends and acquaintances receive Botox injections at 15-minute intervals. Any dream interpreters out there?) But once a day is too infrequent an interval and exacts too low a "transaction cost" given the demands of our awake lives.

I have to admit that, despite a few recent efforts, thoughtful introspection still remains a rare commodity for me. It's not necessarily that I don't have enough time; but even when I do have a spare moment, I feel compelled to do something, whether it's reading about health issues in rural Mozambique, calling an old friend or practicing a Paganini caprice. I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong with these activities, but it bothers me sometimes that I'm wired to feel that I must be doing something "productive" whenever possible.

So I'm still trying to determine what my partitions should be. Prayer? Exercise? Music? Meditation? Just forcing myself to not do anything?

It reminds me a bit of rests in music. When I was younger, like most inexperienced musicians, I considered those squiggly marks a test of my patience, telling me how long I had to wait before I could play the next note. They were nothing, an insignificant duration of orchestral accompaniment, perhaps, in contrast to notes, which were something. It took several years and the unending patience of Mr. Rubin for me to fully understand that rests are not merely the absence of music but rather the crucial space that delineates individual notes and phrases. Rests are what allow for clarity, anticipation, suspense, definition, call and response, and reverberation.

As I figure this all out, I imagine—and hope—that quiet reflection, in the same way that individual wrapping on chocolates provides an extra decision point and reduces overeating,  can help me cut back on overconsumption and overexertion in my daily routines.

And conversely, for the most positive areas of my life, perhaps training myself to press the pause button regularly will provide new opportunities to soak in the goodness while becoming a more thoughtful, conscientious and grateful person in the process.