Sunday, June 29, 2008

Goal-orienteditis or a new look at the ant and the grasshopper

I've posted before about how my latest tour through Proust has been informing my own thinking about consumer behavior, especially around questions of behavior and consistency.

Here's one of these posts under the heading "Context matters."
My point has been that most of us intuitively think of our identities as relatively fixed or at least consistent. Read just about any biography and you'll see this assumption in action as a set of events (causes, effects) are lined up to explain the fundamental principles informing a famous person's decisions throughout life. We make similar assumptions as we assign a set of actions and behaviors to various consumer segments: soccer moms, early adopters, etc., etc.,

Proust's narrator, however, is constantly remarking on the surprising unpredictability of his own inner life. Desire, feelings, motivations are constantly shifting over time to the point that Proust famously thinks of these identities as different selves, more driven by external events and contexts than some immutable internal quality of his identity.

Work on consumer behavior, especially various strands of behavioral economics, have been paying a lot more attention lately our lack of self-knowledge and inability to predict how we'll feel and act in the future. And I just read two more interesting bits are in the July/August issue of HBR.

One brief article references recent work done by Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz in the Journal of Consumer Culture. Their work suggests that for some of us--especially the over-achieving sort--our future orientation might come at the cost of our satisfaction. In a series of experiments with students, shoppers and business people, they found that, over time, people who yielded to temptation regretted their pleasure-seeking less and less while those who put off pleasures for some more responsible choice tended to regret this self-abnegation more and more. Apparently there is an even name for this particular kind of excessive self-control: these hard-workers among us suffer from excessive farsightedness or hyperopia.

While Anat and Ran draw some fairly familiar conclusions from these findings--"a travel company might ask customers to consider how they'll feel if they pass up a family vacation once the nest is empty"--there are more interesting implications to be developed form this work.

For one thing, it suggests a new perspective on Aesop's fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper. If you've been too busy playing Wii to know the fable, you can get the gist here. According to Anat and Ran's work, the grasshopper should feel better and better about his summer of frolicking over time, while the ant will start to regret missing all the fun more intensely as he gets older. Deferred gratification will eventually feel to feel like no gratification. Maybe the grasshopper is happier at the end of the day, assuming of course that he survives the winter.

Just below this piece in the HBR is another related short by Katherine Milkman, who suggests that manufacturers should bundle wants and what what she calls shoulds together (celebrity magazine subscriptions with health club memberships) to serve our ant and grasshopper selves at the same time.

In any case, if it's true that our sense of satisfaction with our choices shifts over time, we might want to think about how a product and service impacts our satisfaction across multiple temporal dimensions: before purchase, during consumption, and as a memory of the experience. Sweet to anticipate, pleasurable to use and delightful in recollection.


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