Essays on time allocation

Mills, Richard (2023) Essays on time allocation. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis contributes to important research questions on ‘time allocation’. We provide three largely independent but related chapters (Chapters I, II, and III), examining various ways people deviate from ‘optimal’ time allocation behaviour. We focus on literature at the intersection between how various forms of 'scarcity' affect judgement and decision-making as well as how individuals ‘bracket’ their choices.

The general introduction outlines the importance of studying time allocation and summarises each chapter's core questions, motivation, methodology, results and respective contributions.

In Chapter I, we investigate the ‘mere urgency effect’ (Zhu et al., 2018), a novel finding showing that individuals are more likely to pursue unimportant tasks when they are characterised by ‘spurious’ time-pressure (an illusion of time-pressure). This effect is interesting as individuals in the modern world are frequently confronted with decisions about how to allocate their time between tasks that vary in their degree of ‘urgency’ and ‘importance’. We conducted four experiments to replicate this effect and examine if it remains robust to the removal of hypothesised confounds in the experimental design. Our results show that although the mere urgency effect significantly attenuates after controlling for confounds, it remains robust, providing further compelling evidence for its existence. Moreover, we find strong evidence for the ‘attention-based psychological account’ as an explanation behind the effect. Subjects in our experiments have an overwhelming tendency to pursue tasks that are made urgent, irrespective of whether it makes financial sense for them to do so, and this is mediated by relative attentional focus on temporal versus pecuniary elements in the decision environment.

In Chapter II, we set out to answer two questions surrounding ‘choice bracketing’ (Read et al., 1999b). That is, does narrow bracketing in time allocation exist? And if so, how robust is it? While substantial literature shows the importance of choice bracketing in contexts involving interdependent decisions, little is known about bracketing within the context of time allocation. As an initial step, we construct a simple theoretical framework, which allows us to disentangle narrow from broad bracketing behaviour. Through three studies, we find a significant prevalence of narrow bracketing in time-use decisions and that it remains remarkably robust in the studied environment. We attempt to unpick the underlying motivations for the persistent occurrence of narrow bracketing and explore the correlates surrounding it. While financial considerations are important in determining narrow bracketing in our experimental environment (individuals are lured by the initially higher rewards of some tasks, neglecting the implications of this for broader payoff maximisation), the time restriction (a form of time-scarcity) placed on some tasks also plays a role in choice. Moreover, we find some important correlates of suboptimal behaviour.

In Chapter III, utilising the novel experimental paradigm developed in Chapter II, we conduct an experiment to test the effect that inducing two forms of ‘scarcity’ have on narrow bracketing behaviour. More specifically, we experimentally manipulate the time at which particular tasks are available (urgency) and the extent to which subjects are short of time (busyness). These dimensions are interesting because while they are distinct in and of themselves, both fall under the same category of `scarcity' that Mullainathan and Shafir (2013) argue forms its own distinct psychology. In our context, such elements of scarcity are predicted to increase focus on narrow choices that disregard the broader picture. Contrasting these predictions, an experiment shows that these manipulations do not adversely impact the time-use behaviour of subjects. That said, in the experiment we also measure subject ‘perceptions’, and those who perceive tasks as more urgent or themselves busier are significantly more likely to engage in suboptimal behaviour. Since the key conjecture under the psychology of scarcity is that perceptions matter for suboptimal time-use, these results are not inconsistent with the theory posited by Mullainathan and Shafir (2013). Ultimately, we find that individual perceptions of urgency and busyness are an important correlate of time allocation behaviour and not necessarily the ‘real' manipulations of such features.

The thesis concludes with a summary of the key takeaways from Chapters I, II and III and offers a more interpretive discussion surrounding the results, particularly across the three chapters as a collective.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Starmer, Chris
Cubitt, Robin
Keywords: Behavioural economics; experimental economics; time allocation; choice bracketing; psychology of scarcity
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
H Social sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Economics
Item ID: 72220
Depositing User: Mills, Richard
Date Deposited: 31 Jul 2023 04:40
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2023 04:40

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