Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Setting Your Watch Fast

Tim Harford also has a column in the Financial Times called "Dear Economist," where he answers "Dear Abby"-type questions with an economist's perspective. Here is one recent question:
Dear Economist,
I have the habit of setting my watch five minutes fast. This fools me into avoiding being three minutes late for meetings, or the train – well, more often than not – and instead being two minutes early. But if I am a rational economic agent, how do I succeed in fooling myself so systematically?
Yours (in haste),
Mark, Oxford
I am familiar with this because in past years in my classroom I would set the clock 3-4 minutes slow, which typically prevented students from packing up their books when there was still 5 minutes left in class.

Your first instinct would be that people learn the pattern pretty quickly and adjust their mental clocks to account for the difference. But it still works. Why do you think people succeed in fooling themselves and rational others with this?

Here is Harford's answer.

Here is a clock that assists people in fooling themselves by randomizing how fast the clock actually is (within a range).


Anonymous said...

i set my clocks fast. my alarm clock is 5 minutes fast. and to be honest. it doesn't fool me. but i don't know why i don't change it. i think that if i set it for the time i want to wake up. then i can have 5 minutes to lay in bed. however, in my car my clock is 7 minutes fast. and this sometimes gets me. it helps me be on time. and even though i know its 7 minutes fast sometimes i can forget. and it always tricks my friends. and they think they are late. i think the main reason people do this is that they think they can trick themselves into being early. but i think that it doesn't work. because you typically can remember. and i don't really understand harfords answer.

Anonymous said...

Just like Carolyn, right now the alarm clock in my room is set 6 minutes fast. I did it on purpose, just like Mark, thinking that it would encourage me to leave earlier if my clock told me i was late. However, every morning I hit the snooze button because I know that I still have at least 6 minutes. I correct for the error because I am only being "half-rational." To me getting 6 extra minutes of sleep is more productive than getting to school on time - or at least my not-so-rational other half claims. I think people try to fool themselves thinking that setting their clock fast will somewhat improve their productivity because they're no longer late, but the problem is it rarely works. If you set the clock, then you know and most likely account for the difference and in my case I am less productive because I end up allowing myself more time.

Anonymous said...

I like knowing exactly what time it is, so I would never intentionally set my watch fast. however, I think it could be useful. In Carolyn's post, she mentioned that her alarm clock never fools her, but she sometimes forgets her car clock. this could be because when you're in bed, your brain isn't at maximum capacity of thinking yet, but when you're driving you are paying attention to many things and being alert. because the attention is spread out among important things like staying in the right lane and braking at correct intervals, the brain can be allowed to forget something such as that the clock is fast. Also, I would even suggest that perhaps the forgetfulness would increase when the driver is stressed out about something such as being late, and therefore when they view the clock, they will want to leave earlier or maybe take the short cut because they want to be on time. This might even work on an alarm clock though, because personally, I know that sometimes I wake up and I just got pulled out of such a deep sleep that I have no idea what time it is, I just hear the beeping and panic. so either way, having a fast clock could fool people and keep them punctual. I would agree that "half rational" is more correct than fully rational, because it would not always work, especially when a person is alert.

-Kate V

Anonymous said...

i agree with both carolyn and abby and i to have all my alarm clock and my car clock set fast. every morning my alarm goes off and i know i can sleep for 3 more mins so my alarm doesn't really trick me, but it helps me wake up when i am able to relax for a few mins before i actually have to get out of bed. however, i do believe that my car clock tricks me, because i can never remember how many minutes fast it is, and i am more likely to concentrate on hurrying up than i am on trying to figure out how much time i actually have. also, i change my clocks whenever i begin to unconsiously subtract minutes from the clock, and it helps that every clock in my house has a different time, so its hard to keep track of how much each clock is off by. I agree with harford's answer in that we are all lazy and somewhat bipolar in the sense that we hate being late and want to be on time, but we are more likely to enjoy that last second of whatever else we are doing instead of being on time
~emily s.