Time or Space? Experimental Research on Self Control and Commute Tradeoffs

DLABSS Note: This is a guest post by Julia Lee, currently a postdoc fellow at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. Previously she was a doctoral student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as well as a lab fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. We'll be periodically checking in with researchers running survey experiments with us to gauge their experience with DLABSS.

I have been interested in the seemingly-irrelevant factors that may influence our motivation and cognition at work.  For example, some of my research looks into how weather can influence worker productivity despite the fact that it is often neglected as an important factor when people think and make plans about how much work they can get done. Recently my colleagues and I began exploring a similar puzzle using a survey experiment on DLABSS.   

My collaborators (Jon JachimowiczBradley StaatsFrancesca Gino, and Jochen Menges) and I were interested in how people strategize about their daily commutes.  People spend not-so-insignificant amounts of time commuting to and from work in a given day, and we already know that long commutes in heavy traffic can have negative effects on work-related attitudes and behavior, such as lower job satisfaction and exhaustion.  Nevertheless, when people are asked to consider two different housing options, their choices rarely seem to factor in the negative impact of commuting. According to Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis’s thought experiment, if offered a 3-bedroom apartment with 10-minute commute time and a 5-bedroom house with a 45-minute commute, many will choose the 5-bedroom house because they underestimate the pains of a lengthy commute.

We set out to test this commuting paradox with participants recruited from DLABSS, with a twist — we wanted to see if this relationship is likely to change based on the individual levels of self-control. Our preliminary results suggested that self-control is an important factor that can potentially influence how different people make commute-related decisions. Individuals high in trait self-control were more likely to choose an apartment that was closer to work, while those who rated low in trait self-control were more likely to choose a house that was farther away from work.  Similarly, those high in trait self-control were more likely to choose a job that was geographically close but paid less, while those low in trait self-control were more likely to choose a job that paid more, but required a longer commute.  

We are currently running a few follow-up studies to examine why people who have different levels of trait self-control make different decisions when facing tradeoffs between commuting and space, salary or other considerations.