Buying an experience

by Rob Horning

27 February 2009


It may turn out to be a question of semantics, but the idea of “purchasing experiences,” as this PsyBlog item discusses, has always grated on me. It seems to conform the pleasures of living to the calculus of shopping, as if they were essentially the same, and the consumerist paradigm can be applied to all pleasures and desires. Everything is for sale, and everything has its price, if you only think of it in the right way. (Just ask Gary Becker.) Is this in fact true, that rational calculation underlies even our most spontaneous-seeming choices and we just choose to block it out of our consciousness from ideological convenience, or is hyper-rational-choice analysis of human behavior itself the ideological proposition? The PsyBlog post confirms what most research into the subject has found: that buying experiences is better than buying stuff, because the stuff sticks around and becomes lame and/or embarrassing, while the experiences become warm and fuzzy memories.

Experiences also beat possessions because they seem to:
  * Improve with time as we forget about all the boring moments and just recall the highlights.
  * Take on symbolic meanings, whereas those shoes are still just shoes.
  * Be very resistant to unfavourable comparisons: a wonderful moment in a restaurant is personally yours and difficult to compare, but all too soon your shoes are likely to look dated in comparison with the new fashions.

That makes a lot of intuitive sense to me, but I just wish it weren’t represented as a matter of what to buy. Can we simply have experiences rather than arranging to purchase them ahead of time?

I had a similar feeling about another consumer-choice related post. Jonah Lehrer, who has just written a book called How We Choose, recently posted about a consumer-research study built on the premise that we all operate with two distinct decisionmaking systems: “the slow rational, deliberate approach (System 1) or the fast, emotional, instinctive approach (System 2).” The study set out to determine which yielded better decisions, using the metric of “consumer consistency.” I have read the rationale for this several times, and have failed to understand it as anything other than an inexplicable plug for Nikon cameras.

When faced with a choice task, consumers need to evaluate the overall utility of each of the alternatives they are facing and compare these utilities in order to make their final choice. Such a utility computation process is likely to vary from case to case based on the exact information consumers consider, the particular facts they retrieve from their memories, as well as the particular computations that they carry out; any of these process components is a potential source for decision inconsistency. For example, when shopping for a new Nikon digital camera, it is possible that consumers might change the aspects of the camera they focus on, the particular information they retrieve from memory, the relative importance weights they assign to the attributes, or the process of integrating these weights.
As researchers, we often treat such inconsistencies as ―noise‖ and use statistical inference tools that allow us to examine the data while mostly ignoring these fluctuations. Yet, such noise can convey important information about the ability of the decision maker to perform good decisions, and, in particular, it can reflect their ability to conceptualize their own preferences. In the current work we focus on such inconsistencies / noise in decision making as indicators of the ease in which consumers can formulate their preferences: we focus on the question of whether the cognitive or emotional decisions are more prone to this kind of error.

I’m not sure why inconsistency iis defined as “error” (Am I reading this right?) or why they assume that beneath the “noise” evoked in a given decisionmaking moment is a preference that is true and consistent over time for a particular individual. People’s desires aren’t that static. And the “noise” in the decisionmaking process is what makes us more than automatons; it makes us strange to ourselves, potentially, but that also means we discover new possibilities for who we are that we wouldn’t otherwise reason our way into. I tend to think that our identity is not so continuous as the researchers’ assumptions imply; that instead our identity tends to be conjured up by the demands of a given context—to put it in lit-crit jargon, subjectivity is intertextual. It’s relational. It’s not a given, transcendent thing that then responds to situations and decisionmaking opportunities. The “noise” is everything.

If we are start making consistent decisions when forced to rely on our “emotional” decisionmaking system, as the study found, that suggests to me a failure of imagination, a retreat into safe choices in response to being overstimulated. The emotional brain is boring in its consistency, not “rational” as Lehrer suggests. Again, this could be semantics, could be a matter of how you define “rational,” but it seems irrational to me to continue to choose the same thing over and over again. That seems sort of regressive, tending toward an infantile repetition compulsion. As much as I complain about gratuitous novelty-seeking, the idea that only consistent choices are rational seems even more absurd. (I am missing something about this study? I must be.) I sometimes feel as though I am coming around to a totally indefensible and irrational position that we shouldn’t bother to study how we choose at all, since it can hardly be anything but a weapon in the hands of marketers to control what we choose, to force out the noise that makes us unique to ourselves and replace it with an official, monologic hum.

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