18 January, 2007

Dr Steel To The Rescue

OK, remember me getting all confused about a piece in the science press about some work by Dr. Piers Steel on procrastination? Basically I couldn’t understand how the denominator in his equation worked? Just to remind you, The formula is Utility = E x V / ΓD.

I took the ΓD bit to mean your desire to do the task will go down the more easily accessible it is and the more sensitive you are to delay. So I asked Dr. Steel if I’d misinterpreted it and, not surprisingly, I had. The two symbols Γ and D should be interpreted as follows:

D refers to one's perception of how far away in time one’s reward is and Γ is a sensitivity measure (to delay in this case) which will increase the effect of D.

So now it all makes sense. The desirability of doing a task equals your expectation of succeeding, times the value to you of completing the task, divided by the reward’s perceived distance, times your sensitivity to delay. As the reward ambles off into the distance, your motivation disappears with it and this is increasingly exacerbated if you are impatient for gratification.

Many thanks to Piers (yes, we’re on first-name terms now) for enlightening me. It just shows you can’t believe everything you read in the press – even when it is a reprint of a University of Calgary press release.

Also thanks to Piers for sending me a copy of the paper I searched so long to find. This was, in fact, even more interesting than I expected it to be since it had a lot in it about the relationships that disciplines such as psychology and economics have to the understanding of motivation and their various approaches to same. It also describes a set of equations of motivation called the matching law, of which the one above can be thought of as another special case. I had, in fact, come the matching law many, many years ago during my psychology degree but hadn’t made the connection between what was then a formula to explain pigeon behaviour in operant conditioning experiments and what is now clearly something with much wider applicability.

In fact, the paper was so interesting it may even have been worth the US$12 I meanly refused to spend on it. Especially since the paper actually contains the formula for understanding why I didn’t buy it!

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