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Objects and Experiences

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Tuesday, Apr 13, 2010

PsyBlog has posted a list of “six psychological reasons consumer culture is unsatisfying.” All of them can be boiled down to the idea that when it comes to purchases, experiences are ultimately more satisfying than objects, mainly because experiences become fond memories instead of outdated clutter. Retailers who sell objects are as aware of this as psychologists are, so their marketing efforts arguably tend to try to make shopping itself into an experience, and make the purchased object into a necessary souvenir of that experience. Or is that experiences have become polluted with souvenirs as they are made “consumable”?
  
I guess what I am driving at here is that the opposition of “object” and “experience” is not as absolute as it may initially seem. Contemporary “experiences” for sale are generally shot through with opportunities to purchase objects, and objects are often packaged as requisite goods for experiences—e.g., you can’t go camping without the appropriate gear, etc. The post contends that consumers typically have a “maximizing” approach to buying things (get the most value for the least money—the neoclassical assumptions about rationality) and a “satisficing” approach to choosing experiences (getting just enough to satisfy without worrying about maximizing utility). I guess I would like to know more about how the studies were designed to reach this conclusion, because the point the post makes at the end—that we can think experientially about buying objects—seems eminently reversible. We can be goaded into thinking of our experiences as objects, as would seem to suit the vested interests of consumerism. That means that the “shopping as experience” ruse may work as a clever piece of marketing jujitsu, promoting shopping for things as an experience in order to habituate us to thinking of experiences as discrete purchasable things rather than a flow of possibility.


Also, I am skeptical that this sort of thing can work:


This experiment suggests that thinking of material purchases in experiential terms helps banish dissatisfaction. Try thinking of jeans in terms of where you wore them or how they feel, the mp3 player in terms of how the music changes your mood or outlook, even your laptop in terms of all the happy hours spent reading your favourite blog.


Making the effort to think in this way would seem to negate the ability to take the contrived thoughts seriously. You have to trick yourself, a la dialectical behavioral therapy, I guess, to forget about how you are forcing yourself to see things differently from how you know, at one level, they are.


Another way of putting this is this: we don’t live in a culture that wants to let us think experientially about purchases or to transcend “invidious comparisons”, so it requires active resistance to hold on to a experiential perspective. I think that we should worry less about experiences vs. objects and think more of a different continuum—that of individualism. There must be studies out there that investigate whether thinking less about personal identity leads to a greater indifference about the signifying component of things and experiences and a broader sense of being in the flow of the events of one’s life.

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