Hyperopia hype

by Rob Horning

16 July 2008


A few days ago Will Wilkinson linked to this brief piece in the Harvard Business Review by professors Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz, summarizing their research into consumer regret.

Our research shows that forgoing indulgences today can feed strong regrets later, and that near-term regrets about self-indulgence dramatically fade with time. These responses are so strong that we were able to influence people’s buying behavior simply by asking them to anticipate their long-term regrets.

The gist of this is that they are conducting research to support the contention that people are not indulgent enough in their consumer behavior, and they need to be persuaded to indulge themselves more. All work and no play, and all that.

People who unduly resist self-indulgence suffer from an excessive farsightedness, or hyperopia—the reverse of typical self-control problems. Rather than yielding to temptation, they focus on acquiring necessities and acting responsibly and they see indulgence as wasteful, irresponsible, and even immoral. As a result, these consumers avoid precisely the products and experiences that they most enjoy. Their hyperopia can inhibit consumption in ways that are bad both for their own well-being and for marketers’ bottom lines. We don’t advocate trying to motivate consumers to make ill-considered purchases, of course, but marketers can help customers make appropriately indulgent choices that they’ll appreciate over the long term.

The “of course, but” in that last sentence seems very telling. These are marketing professors after all. It seems to me that they are trying to motivate consumers to rethink their resistance to consumerism and are trying to encourage marketers to remind them of a future self that will nostalgically look back on that consumerism as a life well lived.

Our findings suggest that marketers of luxury products and leisure services could benefit from prompting consumers to predict their feelings in the future if they forgo the indulgent choice. For instance, a travel company might ask customers to consider how they’ll feel about having passed up a family vacation package once the nest is empty.
Consumers, too, can benefit from such prompts. In the words of the late Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”

This rationale is often used in defense of advertising—it helps consumers find their wants, and get more out of the concept of desiring itself by stimulating it. It unleashes our impulsivity, which is freedom in action, right? I’m sure all those people who thought long-term about the houses they were buying in 2006 feel great about their purchases now and are so pleased that they didn’t stop themselves from indulging.

If desiring things is in itself pleasurable—and it clearly is—then advertising does us the great service of stoking it. But desire is not an unalloyed good; it’s a cognitively draining state of contradiction—mixed in with the excitement and fantasies of possession and the motivation to achieve that it brings, it also yields envy and disappointment and dissatisfaction at the same time. The point of criticizing consumerist desire is not that it’s inherently bad or unpleasurable, but that it restricts us to certain definitions of what is pleasurable, and casts our dreams and regrets (as the researchers discovered) into a specific mold. Clearly we should take more action in the present moment, but that need not take the form of making purchases, as this marketing research seems to imply. Seems like similar studies could be contrived to suit this unconsumption motto: Work less, buy less, do more.

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