Ovsiankina Effect – Why we give up on work

The Ovsianka Effect state that’s an interrupted task, even without incentive, values as a quasi-need. It creates intrusive thoughts aimed at completing that task.

Let’s say you start some work, a blog post, and midway through your phone chimes letting you know you’ve received a text. It’s rather simple question, your friend is asking you where you wanted to go for dinner; Chinese, Mexican, Italian. Obviously you’d like to give a decisive response, but you couldn’t care less and you end up have a short pointless conversation. Eventually you make that decision, but now you’ve been on your phone long enough to trigger your thoughts towards other distractions and start entertaining yourself.

Around dinner you remember your work and start beating yourself up for getting distracted. You should have finished your work before going out with your friends. And worse yet, it’s the second time you’ve done that this week. Your actions aren’t aligning with the values you’ve set. It’s those darn intrusive thoughts, or what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

These thoughts won’t just disappear. Our brain works to stop cognitive dissonance, after all it’s literally mental stress and that’s unhealthy. If we couldn’t do simple mental gymnastics we’d constantly beat ourselves up for all the missed opportunities and procrastination.

Initially we’d consider the right thing to be going home and completing your work, but that’s not likely to happen. You’re having a good time, and you suspect your friends will mock you if you leave to do work.

So, how do you get closure? One of the common mental outs is a change in beliefs or values.

You tell yourself that you’ve worked hard enough this week, you’ve spent plenty of time being productive and you’ve earned this break. After all, how can you be expected to keep going if you don’t recharge every once in awhile. This tiny lie allows your beliefs to fit your actions. Poof, no more stress, what you’re doing is perfectly acceptable.

Worse yet, what if you convince yourself what you’re doing wasn’t even worth your time? Maybe that blog post wasn’t going to be well written anyway, you’d have given up on it, the topic was no good Your excuses are endless and the impact is long lasting.

Research suggests you’ll go so far as to seek the feeling of closure elsewhere. After your night out, you come home and see your laptop still on. You’re reminded of the work you’ve left yourself and start the process over again. But this time, you’ve realized there’s no way you’re going to write. Instead you take your energy and focus to another task, doing the dishes or cleaning your room. It’s almost the same right? And all the time you’ve saved here will let you write get straight into writing tomorrow.

If only it were that easy.

More likely than not you’ll have to start your writing process over. The work you’ve done today was for naught as you didn’t leave yourself in an easy spot to pick up from and your mental gymnastics affirmed that your writing wasn’t worth the time anyway.

Best to start completely over. At least, that’s what you’ve convinced yourself.

The Marshmallow Test 

The Marshmallow test has shown how thousands of children react to temptation.  The initial goal was to see what techniques children use to delay gratification. The tests, led by Walter Mischel and his team at Stanford, were the gateway into the study of self control.

Delaying gratification is key in achieving long term goals. Paying down a home takes a lifetime, the ideal body takes years to sculpt, and your yearly resolution need sacrifice.

Nobel Laureate, Thomas Schelling, highlights a common situation we face when making decisions,

How can we conceptualize the rational consumer who knows to eat a low calorie meal. Consumes whatever they like at dinner. Regrets their choice, and repeats the process in the morning.

The Marshmallow Test was a tool to measure how children go from resisting temptation to giving in. The experiment itself was simple. If a preschooler could wait 15 minutes for the researcher to come back into the room the preschooler would get a second marshmallow, if they couldn’t wait they only received one. The test room was empty aside from the rewards, . Children tested in one of four situations.

  • The immediate and delayed reward were available

  • The delayed reward was available

  • The immediate reward was available

  • Neither reward was available

This simple experiment was the beginning of 40 year research cycle on self-control. Countless variations of the experiment provoked subjects to feel tempted, gave them distractions, or encouraged them to use their imaginations to resist temptation.

Eventually Mischel came up with a set of names are the different sides of our decision making selves, “hot and cold systems”.

The hot system is quick to react to stimuli and is considered to be the driver behind impulsive behaviors. The cold system is logical and thorough, thinking through outcomes and seeking the best long term results.

The initial experiments weren’t designed to be predictors of success, but that’s exactly what they became. In Mischels own words,

“My students and I designed the procedure not to test children to see how well they did, but rather to examine what enabled them to delay gratification if and when they wanted.”

After the initial experiment, and several years later, Mischel and his team were curious how those children who delayed had grown.

As teenagers they had better self-control in frustrating situations and higher grades. In adulthood, they reported lower weight, higher education, and an ease with pursuing long-term goals. Skills their peers lacked.

So, after 40 years, what are some things we’ve learned about self-control?

  • Self-control is malleable, not a predetermined condition. We can change it

  • Your “hot” side seeks immediate satisfaction. It can be stymied, but avoiding temptation is always the easier option.

  • Your “cool” side is logical and slower to process. These conscious thoughts have a difficult time overcoming the unconscious.