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Character  &  Context

Looking Forward to Doing and Having

Image of crowded table with many dishes of food on it

By Amit Kumar

In the coming months, some tech-savvy executive will undoubtedly unveil Silicon Valley’s latest creation, one that will surely make your slower, suddenly outdated gadget pale in comparison. Retailers might deem it the “must-have” item of the moment, and scores of consumers are likely to pre-order this electronic good immediately after its specifications are announced. And then they’ll wait. Such products are typically not available for shipment right away, and so a few weeks will go by before these customers actually receive their much-sought-after possessions. Imagine you were one of these folks. How do you think you’d feel while you were waiting? Like you wish you could just get the thing now?

Waiting is a fascinating activity because sometimes it feels bad, prompting impatience, anxiety, or frustration. But it can also be positive, like when we look forward to what’s to come with great excitement and delight. My empirical work contends that the evaluation of one’s anticipatory state (i.e., whether waiting is unpleasant or enjoyable) depends on what it is one is waiting for.

Consider a different scenario. I recently moved to Chicago, and a similarly-priced purchase on the minds of many in The Windy City is snagging a reservation at Grant Achatz’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Alinea. Grabbing a table at this acclaimed bastion of molecular gastronomy is challenging; people typically reserve about two months in advance. And so they too wait. How do you suspect you’d feel in this situation, anticipating the arrival of the day of your meal?

As Cornell University professor Tom Gilovich and I have reviewed in a recent piece in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, a great deal of research on human behavior has found that people derive considerably more satisfaction from “experiential purchases” (money spent on doing, such as meals at restaurants, vacations, tickets to theater performances, and so on) than they do from “material purchases” (money spent on having, on possessions like clothing, furniture, jewelry, gadgets, and other goods).  Much of this scientific evidence has focused on how happy consumers feel when they are asked to reflect on experiences and material goods they’ve already bought.

Tom and I—along with our collaborator, Matt Killingsworth—published a series of studies in the journal Psychological Science in 2014 demonstrating that the hedonic benefits of experiential consumption actually extend across a rather broad time course, including the phase before we’ve even guzzled down our first cocktail by the pool or heard the initial riff in the band’s set. That is, experiences are not only more rewarding than material possessions after you’ve purchased them, but in anticipation as well. The pre-consumption stage tends to be more pleasurable, more exciting, and less tinged with impatience for experiential purchases we’re looking forward to relative to future material purchases we are planning on buying.

In this past April’s issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, I’ve shown that one consequence of the differences in what waiting feels like for experiential and material investments is that people will sometimes delay their consumption of experiences. It stands to reason that one might do this because doing so allows him or her to take advantage of the relatively more exciting anticipatory period that comes with experiential pursuits. Planning trips ahead of time, buying tickets to the show beforehand, and yes, making restaurant reservations well in advance can be a good idea because this increases the amount of time one can spend savoring future consumption.

In fact, although I doubt Chef Achatz has ever skimmed through a copy of any of my peer-reviewed papers, this seems to be something of which he is astutely aware. Indeed, if you were tempted to make a reservation at any of his fine-dining establishments, you’d do so by clicking a button that says “Book Your Experience.”

It is important to note that one does not have to shell out hundreds of dollars to glean the benefits in well-being that stem from buying experiences rather than things. To be sure, the cost of different experiential and material purchases does not statistically account for the marked difference in psychological states we observe.

While much of being a successful academic rests on ruling out certain mundane explanations for experimental findings—on what doesn’t explain the results of our studies—the more interesting question to me is what does.

Thus far, my colleagues and I have found evidence for one answer to this question, which was published last year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. One of the reasons people derive more pleasure from the anticipation of experiences than “stuff” is because future experiential purchases are more likely to be talked about with other people. Experiences make for better story material than possessions and experiential consumption is thus more likely to be discussed with others. The conversational value people obtain from experiential spending is important because strong social relationships are one thing social scientists know to be integral to human happiness.

Buying experiences can often be thought of as “fleeting” because experiences begin and end. At least one can hold on to a material good, right? Psychologically, it’s really the experiences that endure. Experiential purchases “last” because people benefit from them both before and after the experience has actually been consumed. We “hold on” to our experiences in our minds and the good feelings that come with them are prolonged because they provide the fodder for some of our richest social interactions.

So, if you’re having trouble deciding how to spend your hard-earned money: Even if culinary adventures aren’t your cup-of-foam, I’d suggest that instead of buying that material possession you’ve been eyeing, you might think about the destination you’ve been meaning to visit or the sports team you’ve really wanted to see in the flesh. Then go ahead and “book your experience.” You’ll likely be happier as a result.


Amit Kumar is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He received his A.B. in Psychology and Economics from Harvard University and his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Cornell. For more information, you can check out http://www.kumar-amit.com.

References:

Gilovich, T. & Kumar, A. (2015). We’ll always have Paris: The hedonic payoff from experiential and material investments. In M. Zanna and J. Olson (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 51 (pp. 147-187). New York: Elsevier.

Kumar, A. & Gilovich, T. (2015). Some “thing” to talk about? Differential story utility from experiential and material purchases. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(10), 1320-1331.

Kumar, A. & Gilovich, T. (2016). To do or to have, now or later? The preferred consumption profiles of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26(2), 169-178.

Kumar, A., Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilovich, T. (2014). Waiting for merlot: Anticipatory consumption of experiential and material purchases. Psychological Science, 25(10), 1924-1931.

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