Why We Enjoy Experiences More Than Material Things
January 22, 2012 3 Comments
Ask a social scientist about the keys to happiness and you’re likely to hear that it’s better to buy experiences than buy possessions. What you’re unlikely to hear is a good explanation for why experiences make people happier.
Two Cornell psychologists, Emily Rosenzweig and Thomas Gilovich, attempted to answer this question by examining regret rather than satisfaction in the aftermath of a purchase. They theorized that with material purchases the strongest regret stems from action (i.e. buying the wrong thing), whereas with experiential purchases the strongest regret comes from inaction (not having the experience.) The result is that those who make a purchase are more likely to feel regret when buying a material good, and therefore buying a material good leads to comparatively less happiness.
Rosenzweig and Gilovich confirmed their hypothesis in a series of five experiments. In the most telling experiment subjects were told about somebody who bought a 3-D television — a purchase that could be construed as an experience or a material good. When subjects were asked if the buyer would regret the purchase, subjects for whom the purchase was framed as a material good believed the buyer would feel more regret than subjects for whom the purchase was framed as as an experience.
Why might regret stem from inaction when it comes to experiences, but action when it comes to possessions? The answer involves our propensity to imagine all the things we don’t have.
There is a smaller set of items that feel like effective substitutes for experiential goods. Singular experiences are less likely to prompt counterfactual thoughts that focus on upward comparisons because the class of items with which an experience can be compared is small. Instead, the easiest and most likely comparison is between having missed out on the experience and not having missed out, yielding regrets of inaction. Conversely, the greater interchangeability of material goods affords myriad opportunities for upward comparisons after a purchase, making material purchases more likely to spark rumination about alternative purchases and hence regrets of action.
The influence of interchangeableness makes a lot of sense. When you buy a car, you wonder about what you didn’t get, whereas if you choose not to buy a car, you can always get one next week. On the other hand, if you go to the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, it’s hard to think about what you’re missing out on. If you decide not to go, you probably won’t get another chance to have that experience.
It would be interesting to see if this effect still holds when it comes to gifts. When somebody else does the buying people tend not to engage in counterfactuals, and therefore in those instances material possessions may not lead to regret. In fact, because gifts are generally material goods, if somebody else buys you an experience you may be more likely to think about what material goods they could have bought you instead. The lesson, as always, is buy fancy vacations for yourself and tube socks for others.
Rosenzweig, E., & Gilovich, T. (2012). Buyer’s remorse or missed opportunity? Differential regrets for material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (2), 215-223 DOI: 10.1037/a0024999