Monday, February 16, 2009

I think I can't...

It is known as Parkinson's law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Basically, if you think a task will take a week, you'll find a way, maybe not consciously, to make it take a week. If you think it will take three days, you'll do it in three days.

Michael DeDonno, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University, has shown that Parkinson's law might need to be expanded: It's not only the time you have but how you perceive that time - whether you feel like you have enough time or not.

163 participants were asked to perform the Iowa Gambling task. In the IGT, they are presented with four decks of cards on a computer screen. When they flip cards over they can either win or lose money based on the card. They are told that two of the decks are "good decks" (i.e. decks that are more likely to win them money) and the other two decks are "bad decks". The task is to decided which decks are the good ones and which are the bad ones while only flipping over one card at a time. Over the course of 100 trials, it was determined how much time the participants needed to complete the task.

The participants are then broken up into two groups: one that is told they have enough time to complete the task and another that is told they won't have enough time. Then each of these groups is split in two again with one half being given less time to decide between each card selection than the other half.

Surprisingly, the groups that were told they would have enough time performed better than the group that was told they wouldn't have enough time regardless of whether they actually had more or less time. This means that participants will less actual time (less time between choosing cards) but more perceived time (told they would have enough time) performed better than those with more actual time and less perceived time. Another example of the brain trumping reality! Maybe trumping is too strong a word but it certainly has the upper hand!

DeDonno says that his research could have impacts on fields like standardized testing (SATs, MCATs and GREs) as well as in the medical fields. He wonders if doctors who feel they don't have enough time to spend with patients make poorer decisions simply because of the pressure.

This whole situation adds a whole level to the argument that worrying about a deadline you can't change is not only useless, it may hinder your ability to make it! I suggest we all take a lesson from Scotty, the engineer in the original Star Trek. Figure out how much time it will take to fix something then tell the captain it will take twice that time.

Information on research drawn, in part, from:

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