Thursday, December 31, 2009

Redeem those gift cards! Get that rebate!

It sounds odd, but this is actually a widespread form of procrastination — just ask the airlines and other marketers who save billions of dollars annually from gift certificates that expire unredeemed.

Are you a victim of your own resource slack? As defined by psychologists Gal Zauberman and John G. Lynch, Jr., resource slack is "perceived surplus of a given resource available to complete a focal task without causing failure to achieve goals associated with competing uses of the same resource." They study two of our most obvious resources-- time and money-- and their discussion of time slack is the more interesting. Money is the more consistently fungible resource-- to most of us money is money now and in the future, and we are able to handle this psychologically. We can borrow from the future or save for the future, and even if some of us are better at this than others (or have better access to credit, to use their example) we can get our heads around it.

Apparently we defer tasks to the future because we believe (rightly or wrongly) that the fungibility of time as a resource differs in the short run and the long run. Present time (today's calendar) is not, in our minds, the same as future time (next month's calendar). We have, or believe we have, less slack in the immediate future than in the distant future. The request for a meeting this week is an imposition. The request for a meeting next month is not a problem.

We have two things to consider. One is, are we correct in this belief about time? The other is, what effect does our acting on this belief have? For now, I will leave the first question unexamined and give an example to suggest an answer to the second. (This should prove something all by itself!)

One effect of our time-belief is the amusing type of procrastination, the type that makes us wait for that "just right" occasion to use gift cards, gift certificates, etc. This type of procrastination may also lead us to assume we'll have more time later to fill out that rebate form, address the envelope, and drop it in the snail mail. [I should note here that California, ahead as usual, has protected us from gift certificate expiration. Once it's issued by the restaurant or store, it's good as long as the business exists.]

MORAL: Use it or lose it, unless you're talking about a gift certificate in California.

BTW, the top-of-post pullquote is from this NY Times story, which has another angle on the whole thing:

Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow
Published: December 28, 2009

For once, social scientists have discovered a flaw in the human psyche that will not be tedious to correct. You may not even need a support group. You could try on your own by starting with this simple New Year’s resolution: Have fun ... now!

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