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Why We Spend Instead of Save, and Watch "The Hangover" Instead of "Hotel Rwanda"

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I'm not kidding when I say I planned to post this item yesterday. It's about a book review of The Thief of Time (Oxford), a new collection of essays edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White. James Surowiecki critiques the book--which explores philosophical and practical theories about procrastination--in this week's issue of the New Yorker.

Just as I was preparing this short item, however, The Daily Beast got in my way, via Twitter, with a short clip from 60 Minutes. The Beast advertised a video in which Eminem would find a few words that rhyme with orange. (Come on, who could resist that? What rhymes with orange?!)

That video linked to others, I got an IM from a friend who wanted to share some photos of her dog at an apple orchard, and, long story short, I missed the cut-off for posting. So today I'm skipping straight to the best excerpts.

Here's what Surowiecki had to say about procrastination and The Thief of Time:

Each year, Americans waste hundreds of millions of dollars because they don’t file their taxes on time. The Harvard economist David Laibson has shown that American workers have forgone huge amounts of money in matching 401(k) contributions because they never got around to signing up for a retirement plan. Seventy per cent of patients suffering from glaucoma risk blindness because they don’t use their eyedrops regularly. Procrastination also inflicts major costs on businesses and governments. The recent crisis of the euro was exacerbated by the German government’s dithering, and the decline of the American auto industry, exemplified by the bankruptcy of G.M., was due in part to executives’ penchant for delaying tough decisions. (In Alex Taylor’s recent history of G.M., “Sixty to Zero,” one of the key conclusions is “Procrastination doesn’t pay.”)

He also describes two telling experiments:

Most of the contributors to the new book agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks. In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals.

A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”

Do read the full story, "Later" by James Surowiecki. It's entertaining stuff, I promise. Not good for you at all.  
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