The Why #81: Why do people cancel plans at the last minute?

4 min readFeb 29, 2024

By Dan Monheit, 1st March 2024

Question submitted from Mark, Carnegie

But isn’t it kind of a relief when they do, right? Let’s be honest, you too were hoping to trade in a night on the town for a night on the couch. After all, it’s pretty hard to binge watch ‘One Day’ with all of these extracurricular activities getting in the way.

Of course it seemed like a good idea when you and the boys organised it three weeks ago. In fact, you were practically counting down the hours until you could head down to that new microbrewery, enjoy a bevvy or two and talk about smoked meat to your heart’s content. So why the sudden change?

Projection Bias

Projection Bias refers to our tendency to assume that our future selves will have the exact same set of tastes, preferences and priorities as our current selves.

Projection Bias has been tested and trialled time and time again, but points go to David J Mela and his team for the most relatable example. Mela questioned almost 200 grocery shoppers before they entered the supermarket on topics such as their general dietary habits, what they needed to buy, as well as when they’d last eaten.

What Mela and his team found was that those who had not eaten for a few hours had a higher willingness to pick up excessive items compared to shoppers who had eaten more recently. In other words, those who were hungry now couldn’t quite imagine a future where they weren’t hungry, and enthusiastically filled their baskets accordingly.

When it comes to making plans, we’re really bad at knowing what our future selves will want, so all we can do is make an educated guess based on how we feel right here, right now.

Our lack of foresight can have major consequences, as we fail to appreciate that today’s enthusiasm towards a monthly wine subscription, an overpriced handbag or an edgy neck tattoo, may not be matched by our future selves — who inherit the results of these decisions.

For Challenger Brands, the Projection Bias provides an opportunity to capitalise on motivation in the moment. This could be as simple as offering to book a follow up visit or service immediately after the first or offering monthly or yearly subscription options. People will make all sorts of decisions — many of them long term — based on the assumption that they’ll always feel exactly as they do today. And next time plans drop into your calendar, remember ‘Tentatively Accept’ is your new best friend.

Behaviourally Yours,

Dan Monheit

PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check out why we feel drive through backstreets when we know its not faster here.



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Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about Projection Bas in episode 22 of the Bad Decisions podcast.

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