People don’t like to be idle.  They are willing to spend energy on pointless activities just to avoid idleness.  But they are especially willing to do that if they can make up fake reasons to justify the unproductive busyness.  That’s the conclusion from a clever experiment Emir Kamenica told me about.

In this experiment subjects who had just completed a survey were told they had to deliver the survey to one of two locations before being presented with the next survey 15 minutes later.  They could walk and deliver to a faraway location, about a 15 minute roundtrip, or deliver it nearby, in which case they would have to stand around for the remainder of the 15 minutes.

There was candy waiting for them at the delivery point.  In a benchmark treatment it was the same candy at each location.  In that treatment the majority of subjects opted for the short walk and idleness.

In a second treatment two different, but equally attractive (experimentally verified) types of candy were available at the two locations and the subjects were told this.  In this treatment the majority of subjects walked the long distance.

The researchers conclude that the subjects wanted to avoid idleness and rationalized the effort spent by convincing themselves that they were getting the better reward.  Indeed the subjects who traveled far reported greater happiness than their idle counterparts regardless of what candy was available.

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