Medium Maximization: The Tendency to Focus on Immediate Outcomes

A medium has no value in itself, but it can be traded for another desired outcome. An effort may lead to a medium that, in turn, may lead to an outcome.

Hsee and colleagues (2013) provide the following example of a medium:

“When a loyalty-program member purchases a product, she may earn points, but the points are not what she really wants. They are just a medium that she can redeem for a gift (a desired outcome) later on.”

Money is also considered to be a medium. Money is worthless in itself, but it can be traded for a desired outcome. Since money is worthless, people should only base their decisions on the outcome.

The outcome is just not as obvious as the medium since it is not directly given. The outcome might be happiness, but it is more difficult to measure happiness than money, and therefore, we are more preoccupied with the medium (i.e., money) than the outcome (i.e., happiness).

This is a tendency to focus on immediate outcomes, which is referred to as a medium maximization. A medium such as money may create an illusion of certainty.

As a result, people who focus on the medium may overwork and overearn because they think that an increase in a medium is linearly associated with an increase in happiness.

Hsee and colleagues (2013) highlight this tendency:

“Social scientists have observed that people in industrialized countries have been working harder and harder and accumulating more and more wealth, yet their happiness has not increased appreciably.”

Another reason might be that we have a limited mental capacity. For this reason, it can be difficult to see beyond the immediate outcome. It takes mental effort to recognize the outcome, whereas it is easier to recognize the medium (e.g., the salary).

The more people focus on the medium, the greater the medium effect is. Consequently, people will work more to gain more mediums (i.e., money), focusing too much on the mediums instead of the more fundamental outcomes.