Hyperbolic Distance Discounting

Hyperbolic Distance Discounting

For the past several years, I’ve worked on maintaining a regular meditation practice. Some years have been better than others; in 2021 I only averaged about 6 minutes a day.

However, for the past month and a half, I’ve done over an hour a day of meditation. I’ve meditated more in just these 6 weeks than I did all last year.

So what changed?

I moved across the street from a mediation center.

Hyperbolic Discounting

You may have heard of hyperbolic discounting from behavioral economics: people will generally disproportionally, i.e. hyperbolically, discount the value of something the farther off it is. The average person judges $15 now as equivalent to $30 in 3-months (an annual rate of return of 277%!).

This excessive time-based or “temporal” discounting is familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to delay gratification, and indeed, everything from calorie-counting apps to automatic retirement contributions are attempts to manage this.

But what about when something is farther off in space rather than time?

Travel Time

Say a 1-hour activity is 10 minutes away, compared to 5 minutes away. The total time usage would be 80 vs 70 minutes, about 15% longer. A linear model would predict that it would feel 15% more costly, and then proportionally affect your likelihood of going. In practice though, an extra 10 or 20 minutes of travel time will somehow frequently nudge you into non-participation.

(This makes sense for the most enjoyable activities, the activity itself is leisure, so the only “cost” is something like the travel time. It makes less sense for activities we are disciplining ourselves into doing.)

Curiously similar effects have been documented with travel time elsewhere:

  • Bus passengers rate bus waiting time as twice as costly as bus-riding time
  • Longer workplace commutes result in reduced well-being, even controlling for total commute + work hours

Both of these are examples where people are spending X amount of time for Y outcome. It doesn’t seem like different reasonable constructions of X should make that much of a difference, but empirically they seem to.

Brain Games

If small absolute differences in travel time have large effects on how likely we are to do something, how can we use this knowledge to our advantage?

Well for one we should just minimize travel time as much as possible if we’re trying to encourage a particular activity. Importantly, we need to recognize the hyperbolic nature of this, so 1-minute away may be many times more preferable than “only” 5 minutes away (and maybe worth paying for).

Of course, the closest you can get is having the activity available in your own living space, but as unused home treadmills and exercise bikes demonstrate, this has its pitfalls. There could be something about a thing always being available that means there’s never any urgency.

I think the ideal is to plan a regular time at a very nearby place, along with pre-commitment and accountability (such as with a class or workout buddy). This maximizes the pulls while minimizing the hurdles. For activities that don’t require a particular place, if you can arrange for the scheduled event to happen where you live you are basically guaranteed to participate.

(This is in fact how I learned Chinese. I pre-paid my teacher to come to my apartment, therefore no-showing wasn’t an option and as it was first thing in the morning, I couldn’t even cancel day-of.)

University of Airbnb

If living across the street from something can so massively impact your habits (as it did with my 6 → 60+ minutes of meditation), then maybe we should try just arranging our housing around this?

This could get complicated, but perhaps just temporarily getting an Airbnb or similar across the street from your gym/yoga studio/language school etc. could build up the momentum to create a resilient habit.

(Since this is my last week across from the meditation center for the next 2 months, I'll be running this experiment and we'll all get to see how it goes.)

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