February 18, 2008
Inaccurate Predictions Of Enjoyment When Compared

If you compare something you might do with either something you enjoyed or disliked in the past you'll underestimate or overestimate how much you like it. Comparisons can make you less able to predict enjoyment of an experience.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Researchers have identified a key reason why people make mistakes when they try to predict what they will like. When predicting how much we will enjoy a future experience, people tend to compare it to its alternatives—that is, to the experiences they had before, might have later, or could have been having now. But when people actually have the experience, they tend not to think about these alternatives and their experience is relatively unaffected by them.

In new research funded by the National Science Foundation and presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, shares the findings in a presentation titled, “Why People Misimagine the Future: The Problem of Attentional Collapse.” The research was done with Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University, Karim Kassam of Harvard, Kristian Myrseth of the University of Chicago, and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia.

The actual experience distracts you from the alternatives you could have done.

Gilbert presents the results of four experiments, all involving predicted versus actual enjoyment of a very simple experience—eating potato chips. In three of the experiments, participants predicted how much they would like eating potato chips before, after, or instead of eating a much better food (chocolate) or a much worse food (sardines). They then ate the chips and reported how much they liked them. The results showed that the chocolate and the sardines had a large impact on participants’ predictions, but no impact whatsoever on their actual experiences. Those participants who compared the chips to sardines overestimated how much they’d enjoy eating the chips, and those who compared them to chocolate underestimated how much they’d enjoy eating the chips.

Why does this happen? “Experience typically demands our attention,” says Gilbert, “leaving us little time to think about the alternatives to it.”

But if you slow down and think about the alternatives while having the experience the alternatives will affect how much you enjoy the experience. So slow down and think about lousy alternatives.

To demonstrate this, participants in a fourth experiment were asked to eat the potato chips to the beat of a metronome. Those participants who ate the chips at a normal pace made the same mistake as did participants in the previous experiments. But participants who ate the chips at an unusually slow pace did not. Specifically, participants who ate slowly actually did enjoy the chips more when the alternative was sardines than when the alternative was chocolate—just as they had predicted.

Gilbert argues that slowing down the experience of eating gave participants the opportunity to think about the chocolates or the sardines.

“A very slow family reunion may well be worse if the alternative was Bermuda than if the alternative was working an extra shift,” says Gilbert. “When experiences don’t demand our attention, our minds are free to wander to all the other things we might have been doing instead. If those things are better, we feel worse, and if they are worse, we feel better.”

Should ice cream parlours and candy stores heighten the customer experience by putting pictures of asparagus and broccoli on their walls? Should resort hotels show pictures of traffic jams and pollution on their walls to remind people of worse places they are escaping from? But what sorts of pictures do you want to see on the wall at your mother-in-law's?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 February 18 10:23 PM  Brain Economics

odograph said at February 19, 2008 6:41 AM:

Did you all read Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness?

I found it valuable not just for "happiness" but also for "prediction" and how we are drawn to it.

("Gilbert on Peak Oilers", not THAT would be interesting.)

Bob Badour said at February 19, 2008 7:32 AM:

Should they? Hell no! Are you going to buy ice cream from a place that advertises broccoli?

The ice cream parlour should encourage you to impulse buy and then eat your ice cream quickly without thinking about the sex you could be having.

Mike said at February 19, 2008 8:03 AM:

"Should ice cream parlours and candy stores heighten the customer experience by putting pictures of asparagus and broccoli on their walls?"
If the company made people enjoy their ice cream more, then why not. It could potentially lead to more sales. This is kind of like that recent study on wine they did. Having a higher price tag for wine actually makes the brain process it differently and experience more pleasure as a result. So presentation of a product is definitely key in how your brain experiences pleasure.

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