Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday dollars+sense: The war within ourselves, on DVD

Rented any good movies lately? You probably have. But you may not have watched them. If so, you are at war with yourself.

Don’t take my word for it. Get on the web and read a working paper from three Harvard University economists entitled “I Rented the Documentary First, but I Want to Watch the Comedy Now: Intrapersonal Conflict and Myopia in Online DVD Rentals”.

That’s its real title...

Katherine Milkman and her colleagues have been trawling through data from Quickflix, Australia’s second-largest on-line DVD rental company.

Quickflix allows its customers to rent up to three movies at a time for as long as they want without paying late fees. As soon as one is returned, the next on the customer’s list of favourites is posted out.

The team used on-line volunteers to divide films into “should watch” movies (“Scott to the Antarctic” was one) and “want to watch” ones (“Kill Bill” was amongst them).

And then they used four months of Netflix data to compare the order in which Australians requested movies to the order in which they actually watched them.

Guess what? The movies that we order first are highly likely to be those that we least want to watch first. We hang on to them, meaning to watch them, one day.

Typically, according to the researchers, we hang on to “Kodoka Frontline” for 17 per cent longer than we hang on to “Alien vs. Predator”, perhaps waiting for the right time to watch it, perhaps never finding it.

As economist Zubin Jelveh puts it, we watch the good-time movies the day we get them, “while the brain food stays in the envelope until we slowly come to the realization that we will never watch it and on a quiet Sunday morning open the package, tear off the perforated sheet, reseal it and put it back in the mail”.

If that’s behaviour that seems normal to you it’s probably because you’re not an economist.

Classically-trained economists don’t believe in “intrapersonal conflict”. Each of us is meant to know what we want and be rational about buying (or renting) it.

It’s against their belief system to think that a good-self would fight with a bad-self about what to watch, that the good-self would win when it came to ordering and the bad-self would win when it came to watching.

They’ve a lot to learn about how complex life inside our heads really is.

HT: Zubin Jelveh

Katherine Milkman, Todd Rogers and Max Bazerman: I Rented the Documentary First, but I Want to Watch the Comedy Now: Intrapersonal Conflict and Myopia in Online DVD Rentals. Article submitted to Management Science; manuscript no. MS-0001-1922.65