I read Playboy for the articles

is a Harvard working paper, and not a statement of fact.

“I read Playboy for the articles”: Justifying and rationalizing questionable preferences” by Zoe Chance and Michael I. Norton is an interesting working paper from Harvard that I read a few days ago.

In this paper the authors explore the phenomenon of people making excuses to others and even themselves, when they make unethical or immoral choices.

They conduct an experiment where they choose 23 males with a median age of 20.9, and tell them that they are interested in knowing the criteria the participants use to choose a magazine.

They select two sports magazines: both won the same number of Associated Press Journalism Awards and had similar issue lengths.

Two attributes of the magazines were manipulated:

  1. One had a higher number of sports covered per issue (9 against 6)
  2. It had a lower average number of featured articles (12 vs. 19)

On top of the above, the each magazine was advertised to carry a special: either a “Swimsuit Issue” or a “Year’s Top Athlete” special.

Magazine A Magazine B
Sports Covered 9 6
Featured Articles 12 19
Swimsuit issue Half of the respondents got this issue in Magazine A Half of the respondents got this issue in Magazine B

What do you think happened?

92% participants selected the magazine with more articles when it came with the swimsuit edition, while only 46% selected it when it didn’t have the swimsuit edition.

The authors wished to establish that people will justify their decision by rationalizing it with a less suspect criteria and that’s what happened too.

83% of the participants ranked: number of articles, higher, when the magazine got coupled with the swimsuit issue. Whereas only 36% ranked: number of articles, higher, when the magazine didn’t come with the swimsuit issue any longer!

Here is a neat table that summarizes these results:

% Selecting Magazines with more articles % Citing more articles as more important % Selecting Magazine that covers more sports % Citing more Sports as more important
Swimsuit Issue has more articles 92 83 8 17
Swimsuit Issue covers more sports 46 36 54 64

The paper goes on to list several other examples from other studies and makes excellent reading.

The study doesn’t talk about finance or money at all, but its application in wrong money choices is far too evident and happens all the time.

We rationalize purchases of stuff we should stay away from all the time. My favorite was when I bought golf clubs last year after being to the driving range just once, and knowing quite well that I’ll hardly use them.

I rationalized that by saying to myself that if I spend money on this, it will make me go out and use it and learn this sport. It will be good exercise and I’ll make new friends.

What I was really thinking was that it’d be a classy thing to do, but never admitted it once (until now).

A great study and I think that just by acknowledging that this happens, a lot of people will be able to better evaluate their decisions and even avoid them if they don’t make any sense.

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