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Don't Save the Worst for Last: Experienced and Predicted Affective Impacts of Task Ordering

Previous studies across multiple domains (e.g. pain, negative film clips, and learning word lists) have established that the end of an experience is heavily weighted when making summary judgments. However, these studies have not typically involved the type of tasks that individuals complete in everyday life. Moreover, they generally focus on retrospective evaluations of an event rather than its immediate affective impact. We sought to leverage these findings and ask how the order in which people complete hard and easy tasks might have consequences for how they feel after they are finished. To test this, we first ran a pair of between-subjects studies where participants completed one hard and two easy tasks with minimal expectations about the nature and length of the experience. We systematically varied whether the hard task occurred first, second, or third in the sequence and measured affect before and after the set of tasks. Consistent with predictions generated from these prior studies, those who completed the most difficult task at the end of a sequence had a greater drop in affect than those who completed it earlier. Also, final task affect was significantly predicted by the difficulty and enjoyment of the final task in the sequences. Related to this, the affective experience of the tasks in isolation was very similar to sequences that end on those same tasks. Taken together, these findings suggest an end effect in our data.
We next sought to replicate the observed order effects when participants had prior knowledge of how many tasks they would be completing. We saw a very similar pattern in this study as well, with participants who completed the most difficult task at the end of the sequences having the greatest drop in affect. We also replicated our end effects, and observed that knowledge of task number led to greater affect in all orders. Our final studies tried to answer the question of whether or not participants predict that completing the most difficult task at the end of a sequence will lead to worse affect than completing it earlier. Across two studies, we did not find that participants who read about the tasks predicted affective differences as a result of task order. We also did not see evidence of a clear end effect in these participants. However, when compared to those who completed the tasks, we did observe a general overestimation of negative affect across all orders, regardless of hard task position. Although it has not been shown for task sequences, this finding is consistent with literature on ‘affective forecasting,’ which suggests that people overestimate the magnitude of expected negative affect.
Finally, we asked participants in all studies what order they would have preferred to complete the sequences in. The majority of all participants would have preferred to complete the hard task at the end of a sequence rather than earlier. This was despite the affective consequences that many of them experienced from recently completing it at the end of a sequence. However, those in the prediction groups who merely had the hardest task presented to them first showed a disproportionate preference to also complete it first. And those who only completed a single task would prefer to complete it first in a hypothetical sequence with two easy but unknown tasks. Thus, despite the affective consequences of task order, many people do not seem to select orders that may diminish negative affect following a sequence. However, these data also suggest that completing easy tasks at the end of a sequence can improve affect, and there may be scenarios where individuals make more adaptive choices.
Date January 2017
CreatorsKallman, Seth Jonathan
Source SetsColumbia University
Detected LanguageEnglish

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