Psychological Research

, Volume 83, Issue 8, pp 1674–1684 | Cite as

Starting or finishing sooner? Sequencing preferences in object transfer tasks

  • Lisa R. FournierEmail author
  • Alexandra M. Stubblefield
  • Brian P. Dyre
  • David A. Rosenbaum
Original Article


When tasks are performed, other tasks are postponed, at least implicitly. Little is known about how task sequencing is determined. We examined task sequencing in object transfer tasks for which either task could easily or logically come before the other. The task was to transfer ping pong balls from two buckets into a bowl. To perform the task, participants walked down a corridor, picked up one of two buckets (their choice), carried it to the end of the corridor, transferred the balls from the bucket into a bowl, carried the bucket back to the start position, and then did the same with the other remaining bucket. As in an earlier study where just one of two buckets had to be carried to the end of a corridor (Rosenbaum et al. Psychol Sci 25(7):1487–1496, 2014), participants showed a marked tendency to start with the near bucket. The near-bucket preference was modulated only to a small extent by the number of balls that could be emptied into the bowl. The relative lack of importance of the number of balls to be transferred (to finish the first task more quickly or to get closer to the end goal of transferring all balls into the bowl) was further demonstrated by the fact that the effect of the number of balls to be transferred did not depend on how the emptying was supposed to occur (by pouring the balls or placing the balls one at a time into the bowl), or by whether the instruction focused on filling the bowl or emptying the buckets. The results suggest that the near-bucket preference reflects a strong inclination to start the task (sub-goal) as soon as possible rather than complete the task (sub-goal) as soon as possible. Starting the task as soon as possible may be related to the affordance triggered by the sight of the near object or by the freedom to perform without having to inhibit a reach for a bucket when the performer is empty-handed. Starting a task sooner may free up cognitive resources for subsequent decision-making.



This work was supported in part by a WSU Advance Grant awarded to Lisa R. Fournier and a University of California, Riverside, Committee on Research Grant awarded to David A. Rosenbaum. We thank WSU undergraduates Bryan Haflich and Daniel Wynhoff for help with data collection. We also thank David Marcus for the idea of adding the “one-by-one” condition. Wilfried Kunde and two anonymous reviewers provided useful editorial comments, and conversation with Markus Janczyk was helpful as well.


This work was supported in part by a WSU Advance Grant awarded to Lisa R. Fournier and a University of California, Riverside, Committee on Research Grant awarded to David A. Rosenbaum.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal rights statement

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyWashington State UniversityPullmanUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychology and CommunicationUniversity of IdahoMoscowUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of California RiversideRiversideUSA

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