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An Uphill Road

Bauer Research Looks at Initiating Action by Stressing Task Complexity

Published on June 10, 2021

Photo: Vanessa Patrick

With e-calendars full of commitments and seemingly endless everyday details to handle, it’s easy to postpone goals that may be important, but which don’t seem urgent. Numerous studies have found people do not take the time to set up a retirement account, for instance. Getting younger consumers to accomplish such tasks for the first time can be especially challenging.

Recent research from the C. T. Bauer College of Business, “Is the uphill road the one more taken? How task complexity prompts action on non-pressing tasks,” published by the Journal of Business Research, suggests one way to prompt novice decision-makers to take action may be by stressing the complexity of the task.

“While it may seem counterintuitive to make something appear difficult in our ’easy button’ culture, framing a task as complex acts as a behavioral prompt for less experienced consumers, information that could be valuable for organizations interested in nudging these novices,” said Bauer College Associate Dean of Research and Marketing Professor Vanessa Patrick, who co-authored the study.

“We wanted to better understand what can prompt novices to action, to move those who lack domain-specific knowledge to take action on important-non urgent tasks,” Patrick said.

She and Professor Julia Bayuk, of the University of Delaware, conducted four studies to test the theory that novices are more likely to use task complexity as a cue of urgency to take action, compared to more experienced consumers.

Their theory was supported, whether novices were asked to attend to retirement savings, take steps to boost online security, or sign up for a research account.

“Experienced consumers can look at a set of steps needed to accomplish a task, and realize how long it might take them to complete it, or what they might need to do next,” Patrick said. “They don’t need task complexity to signal that a task is important since they realize the importance and the urgency of the task at hand. Experts have the knowledge to know that they need to take action on important tasks, even if they are non-urgent.”

Organizations interested in applying the theory should, however, exercise caution, Patrick said.

“We suggest that making the steps seem more complex prompts novices to initiate action, but once they initiate action, if the process is so complex that they don’t understand what to do next, they may give up, and this effect may backfire,” she said.

The impact might also be different for consumers who have several competing goals that are ultimately important in the distant-future (e.g., being healthy and saving enough for retirement).

“Would increasing task complexity for multiple goals simultaneously equally increase perceptions of urgency and urge action initiation, or would this backfire in a stressed and anxious consumer?” she asked.

“While we are really intrigued by our findings, we realize there are many opportunities to examine the boundary conditions and other ways to prompt action initiation amongst novices,” Patrick said.

Patrick is Lead Faculty for the Bauer Executive Women in Leadership Program and Fulbright Specialist for 2019-2022. Her research deals with the psychology of everyday aesthetics and design and has appeared in numerous prestigious academic journals and leading media outlets. Patrick is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the Journal of Retailing and serves on the editorial review board for Journal of Marketing.