Tempering optimistic bias in temporal predictions: The role of psychological distance in the unpacking effect
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People typically underestimate the time it will take them to complete tasks, even when they are familiar with the process of executing those tasks (the “planning fallacy”; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979; Buehler, Griffin & Ross, 1994). One reason that individuals may show a chronic misprediction of task completion time hinges on an incomplete conception of the steps required for task completion. Support Theory (Tversky & Koehler, 1994) suggests that “unpacking” such steps may help to attenuate the planning fallacy. Indeed, when a task is unpacked into procedural steps, people give longer task completion time estimates, and the planning fallacy is minimized (Kruger & Evans, 2004). Construal level theory (Liberman & Trope, 1998) suggests that a lower-level construal of a task (i.e., a task construed in the near-future) may also foster less optimistic predictions, akin to the underlying mechanism of unpacking a task. It is hypothesized that the effects of unpacking on task completion time will be more pronounced for near-future tasks, because the lower-level construal of such tasks emphasizes details of component steps, making them more readily available to be “unpacked” as part of the prediction process. Conversely, for distant-future events, unpacking effects should be attenuated. Further, these distance-dependent unpacking effects should depend critically on the content of steps unpacked. These hypotheses were tested in five studies. Unpacking effects on completion time estimates are attenuated for distant- relative to near-future tasks, and that this attenuation emerges as a result of an abstract conception of the steps of the task when considered in the distant future.