Ever wondered why people change their mind in key moments?
Why they change their plans?
Why they behave in contradiction to what they say?
To answer these questions, Christensen-Szalanski (1984) conducted a study on pregnant women and their decisions regarding the use of pain relief (i.e. anaesthesia) during labor.
In the study, the expectant women were asked ahead of time whether they would prefer to deliver the child with or without anaesthesia.
When presented with these two future outcomes, many women refused the option of giving birth with pain relief.
For the soon-to-be mothers, this was a rational choice. It was the decision that had a greater overall value to them.
During labor however, the expectant women went against their past decision and opted to give birth with anaesthesia anyway.
Why did these women suddenly change their minds?
Why we make plans but change them later
The concept of delay discounting best explains why the pregnant women changed their preferences.
Delay discounting is the process of devaluing future outcomes (e.g. Green and Myerson, 2004). In essence, it is the overvaluing of smaller-sooner rewards (i.e. immediate gratification) at the expense of larger-later rewards (i.e. delayed gratification).
For instance, smokers will enjoy a cigarette because it brings them a lot of pleasure in the moment. However, they are giving in to the immediate gratification of smoking while discounting the value of a larger-later reward which is long-term health.
In the study, the women wanted to give birth to their child without any pain relief when asked ahead of time.
However, the appeal and value of pain relief was suddenly much greater when the women were experiencing the excruciating pain of childbirth than it was when making the decision weeks or months earlier.
In the moment of childbirth, it just didn’t make sense to tough it out and suffer so much when all the pregnant women had to do to make the pain go away was ask the doctor for some anaesthesia.
They experienced immense pain so they gave in to the immediate gratification of their visceral emotions and asked for some pain relief. Problem solved.
That’s why the women made what is called a present-biased choice, which means that the value of the pain relief option was suddenly highest in the present moment.
Ahead of time though, the women underestimated the value of pain relief by failing to gauge how painful the experience of active childbirth tends to be.
Though they may have been experiencing huge levels of pain when giving birth, in the grander scheme of things the women sacrificed a larger-later reward (i.e. childbirth without anaesthesia) for a smaller-sooner reward (i.e. pain relief).
This preference reversal is in line with a concept called time inconsistency. That is, the preference between two options changed simply because of the passing of time (Angner, 2012).
Interestingly, the preference reversal was observed in first-time mother’s as well as mother’s that had experienced childbirth pain in the past.
The expectant women who had given birth already once before still did not account for their present bias and lacked awareness of their discounting tendencies.
In effect, they mistakenly assumed that their initial decision would remain unchanged regardless of the passing of time and shift in circumstances.
The study demonstrated how short-term thinking can prevail in making a decision for an outcome that has a greater present value, simultaneously reversing the rational decision that was made in one’s long-term best interest beforehand.
It’s not just pregnant women who reverse their preferences.
It’s everybody, man and woman. It’s just human nature.
But if we really care to stick to our initial decisions, we can help ourselves out and use what are called commitment devices. You can read more about those here.
In the case of the pregnant women mentioned earlier, one idea for a commitment device would’ve been to tell the doctors to ignore the women’s requests for pain relief. An even more extreme idea would be to get rid of all anaesthesia in the hospital…(disclaimer: I am not suggesting this as a viable solution).
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