A growing nervousness is evident in Washington this week, where the bipartisan deficit “super committee” remains deadlocked just days from its deadline. News outlets with a penchant for finger-wagging are earnestly scolding lawmakers for their lack of progress, and The Washington Post is featuring a “deadline for supercommittee” countdown on its website. Will all this pressure make the committee strike a deal in time?
At least some psychological research suggests that critics should lay off: Demanding that the super committee finish its work on a deadline could undermine its interest in coming up with budget cuts. A 1976 study found that imposing deadlines on the completion of a task “can result in a decrement in subsequent intrinsic in that task.” The study examined subjects completing a set of “initially interesting” word games. Some subjects were allowed to proceed at their own pace, but others were given deadlines (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly). Although the latter subjects generally finished in time, they were found to be less interested in completing the games—which the authors attribute to “overjustification,” the idea that imposing a means-end relationship on an activity undermines a person’s intrinsic interest in that activity. The results suggest that if we really want those beleaguered lawmakers to put their hearts into budget-slashing, we should ease up on the pressure a little bit. And besides, if that means they miss their deadline, it’s no big deal.