Film Rentals and Procrastination: A Study of Intertemporal Reversals in Preferences and Intrapersonal Conflict

by Katy Milkman, Todd Rogers & Max H. Bazerman

Overview — Throughout our lives, we face many choices between activities we know we should do and those we want to do. Examples of such choices include whether or not to visit the gym, to smoke, to order a greasy pizza or a healthy salad for lunch, and to watch an action-packed blockbuster or a history documentary on Saturday night. Using data on consumption decisions over time from an Australian online DVD rental company, this paper investigates how and why individuals make systematically different decisions when their choices will take effect in the present versus the future. Key concepts include:

  • The more "should watch" characteristics and the fewer "want to watch" characteristics a DVD has, the longer an individual will postpone watching that DVD.
  • Companies that loan goods to consumers and are interested in predicting return times may be better able to forecast borrowing times based on the extent to which the items are "should" or "want" goods.
  • Consumers may be better able to take steps that curb impulsive behavior.

Author Abstract

We report on a field study demonstrating systematic differences between how people anticipate preferences and their subsequent preferences. We examine the film rental and return patterns of a sample of online DVD rental customers over a period of four months. We predict and find that people are more likely to rent DVDs in one order and return them in the reverse order when should DVDs (e.g., documentaries) are rented before want DVDs (e.g., action films). Relatedly, we also predict and find that should DVDs are held longer than want DVDs.

Paper Information