Monday, September 29, 2014

Why are Experiences Often Better Purchases than Things?

I have written a few blog entries in the past on the observation from research by Tom Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven as well as by Elizabeth Dunn, Dan Gilbert, and Tim Wilson that people get more happiness out of purchases when those purchases are experiences than when they are material things.  So, a ski trip creates more happiness than a new stereo that cost about the same amount of money.

Even in the original research, though, the researchers realized that this distinction is not as clean-cut as it appears.  For example, if you buy an expensive car, that could serve as a physical possession. However, that car might also create a variety of driving experiences that lead to happiness.  

A paper in the February, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Peter Caprariello and Harry Reis examines the role of sociality on the difference between experiences and things.  When you purchase an experience, chances are you are going to share that experience with at least one other person (and perhaps many others).  When you purchase a thing, there is a greater chance that the object is something you are going to use alone.  These researchers suggest that items you use in a social setting are preferred to those used alone.

As an example, in one study participants were asked to think back to a purchase they made some time in the past.  Some people were asked to think about the purchase of an experience (like a movie ticket or trip to an art museum).  Other people were asked to think about the purchase of a material possession (like clothes or a stereo sound system).  Some people were asked to think about purchases of experiences or possessions that they would use alone.  Others were asked to think about purchases of experiences or possessions that they would use with other people. 

After thinking about these items, they rated how happy they were with the purchase now, how happy they remember being with that purchase when they made it and whether they thought the purchase was money well-spent.

In this study, the things and experiences that people remembered purchasing did not differ significantly on average in price or length of time since the purchase. 

Overall, people were happier with their purchase (both at the time of purchase and at the time of the study) when the item was bought to use socially than when it was bought to use alone.  People also rated themselves as happier at the time of purchase when they bought an experience than when they bought a material possession. Surprisingly, they rated the money as better-spent on material goods than on experiences.

What does all this mean?

First, an important part of the difference in happiness that people get from a purchase comes from using that purchase for social interactions.  There is still some tendency for purchases of experiences to make people happier than purchases of things above-and-beyond the social aspect (at least at the time of purchase). 

People rate money as better-spent on material goods, because once an experiential purchase has been used, it is gone, except as a memory.  Material goods stay around longer.  Thus, a year after a purchase, you can still use a shirt or a stereo you bought.  At best, though, you can only remind yourself of a great trip. 

I find it interesting that people think the money is better-spent on material goods, even for possessions that will be used alone that create low-levels of happiness.  This finding suggests that people focus their judgments of how they spend their money on the value the purchase rather than on the happiness they get from that purchase.

Ultimately, this work suggests that when you have some discretionary money, it is a good idea to find ways to use it to bring you together with other people.  In the long-run, those purchases will help you to buy some happiness.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Schedule that Interview Early in the Day

Suppose you had the job to interview students for a university.  Over the course of an admissions season, you might interview 25 students a week for six months.  That would translate to over 500 interviews.  Some of those students are probably strong candidates for your school, while others are not.  And over the years, you probably get good at separating the good candidates from the bad ones.

Ideally, you would evaluate each new student relative to the entire set you have interviewed in the past.  After working for 10 years, that would give you a base of well over 5000 students that you can use to judge each new applicant. 

It shouldn’t matter, then, who else you have interviewed that day.

A fascinating study by Uri Simonsohn and Francesca Gino in the February, 2013 issue of Psychological Science suggests that—contrary to this analysis—expert interviewers are heavily influenced by the other interviews they have already done that day.

These researchers examined the ratings given to candidates who interviewed for an MBA program.  They had access to the overall rating given to the candidates, scores on subcomponents of the interview like the assessment of the candidate’s willingness to work in a team and interest in the school, as well as the number of interviews already done that day.  They also had information about performance (like GMAT scores), qualifications for the program (like the evaluation of the student’s admission essay) and information about the interviewers (like the average score they typically give to interviews). 

The researchers did analyses to look at the factors that predict the overall interview score.  Even after controlling for lots of other factors (like the candidate’s GMAT score, essay quality, and characteristics of the individual interviewer), there was also a negative correlation between the previous scores given to candidates that day and the score given to the current interviewee.

That is, if all of the previous candidates had gotten high scores, the interviewer gave someone later in the day a lower score. 

What is going on here? 

It seems that interviewers like to have each day’s ratings balance out.  When an interviewer sees 3 or 4 good candidates in a row, they become concerned that they are giving too many high ratings.  So, if another good candidate comes walking through the door, they get a lower rating just so that the ratings for the day are not uniformly high.  By chance, of course, there should be lots of days in which there are several good candidates in a row.  So, interviewers probably should not take the other people interviewed that day into account, but they do.

The researchers tested a number of alternate explanations for the finding.  For example, it is possible that being interviewed in the day just magnifies differences among candidates.  So, a candidate seen late in the day who is slightly worse than the previous candidates may be rated much worse than that same candidate seen early in the day, because of the contrast with the better candidates.  However, an examination of the specific interview characteristics (like willingness to work as a team) did not show the same negative correlation with the previous interview scores.  That is, the interviewers were able to give a reasonably objective evaluation of the candidate’s characteristics, but then used the previous interviews for the day to balance out the overall ratings.

If you are being interviewed for a position, this finding suggests that you might want to schedule your interview early in the day to minimize the interference of previous interviews on your evaluation. 

If you are doing interviews, then you should be aware that you may try to balance out your evaluations over the course of a single day.  Instead, you should do your best to compare each candidate to the overall ideal candidate for the position.  Don’t worry that you have also seen other good candidates that day.  Remember, that things will balance out in the long-run even if they don’t balance out in the short-term.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rejection and Discrimination Have Different Effects

If you decide to start blogging, you have to develop a thick skin.  Not everyone is going to like what you have to say, and the internet comments people give you are not always phrased in the nicest way.  Still, the negative comments can sting.  And that leads to an immediate sense of rejection.

Not all forms of rejection are the same, though.  It is one thing to have someone attack the ideas you have put forward.  It is another thing entirely to think that you are being rejected based on some personal characteristic like race, gender, or religion.  In that case, the rejection slips into a feeling of discrimination.

Do people treat rejection and discrimination in the same way?

This question was explored in a paper in the February, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jeremy Jamieson, Katrina Koslov, Matthew Nock, and Wendy Berry Mendes. 

In their study, participants were either black males or white females.  At the start of the study, participants selected an avatar to represent themselves in a chat room.  The avatar was the same race and gender as the participant.  Next, they were told that they were going to give a brief speech via webcam, and that the other participants were going to judge that speech.  They would be able to see the comments of the other participants as they spoke.

In reality, the comments of the other participants were typed by the experimenter from a list.  All of the comments were negative and were designed to be relevant to what the participant said.  For example, if a participant made a comment about themselves, the comment might say, “Oh someone is feeling good about themselves today.” 

For all participants, the evaluators were shown by avatars of the same gender.  However, half the participants were critiqued by avatars of the same race, while others were critiqued by avatars of a different race. 

The experimenters took physiological measurements during the study. They measured things like blood pressure and cardiac output.  They also took cortisol measures.  Cortisol is a hormone that is released in stress situations and can be measured through a saliva sample.  The cortisol measures were taken before and after the speech.  The experimenters also watched the video of the speeches later and looked for signs of anger and shame. 

In addition, there were three behavioral measures.  The experimenters measured participants’ ability to recall a story told at the beginning of the study.  They also used an emotional Stroop task.  In this task, participants see words related to positive and negative emotions printed in a font of a particular color.  Participants have to identify the color of the font as quickly as possible.  The longer it takes participants to identify the color, the more that they are paying attention to the emotion described by the word.

Finally, the experimenters used a measure of risk taking called the Columbia Card Task.  In this measure, participants see a set of cards face-down and are told that they can turn over cards to try to gain as many points as possible.  Some of the cards allow participants to gain points, while others cause them to lose points.  Across trials, the decks vary in the number of negative cards that they are told are present as well as the size of the gains for the positive cards and the size of the losses for the negative cards.  Some decks have high rewards, while others have low rewards.  Some decks have small losses, while others have large losses.  This task is used to measure risk taking.

The results of this study demonstrate that people treat rejection by a member of the same race differently from discrimination (defined as rejection by a member of a different race).

Physiologically, when people are rejected by a member of the same race, they show an increase in blood pressure.  When people are rejected by a member of the opposite race, they show an increase in cardiac output (which is a response to a threat).  Participants rejected by a member of the same race show higher levels of cortisol than participants rejected by a member of the opposite race.  Participants rejected by members of the opposite race exhibit more anger than those rejected by members of the same race.

Rejection and discrimination also have different behavioral effects.  There is a tendency for participants rejected by people of the same race to have worse memory for the story than those rejected by members of the opposite race.  This finding is consistent with research showing that stress and cortisol levels influence memory.

Participants rejected by someone of the opposite race are slower to identify the font color for negative emotion words in the Stroop task than those rejected by someone of the same race.  That is, discrimination makes people pay more attention to negative emotions.

Finally, participants rejected by someone of the opposite race are riskier in the card selection task than those rejected by someone of the same race.  That is, they select more cards from the decks, particularly when there is the possibility of getting large rewards.  This result suggests that discrimination increases people’s tendency to take risks more than rejection.

This study does not have a neutral control condition, so it is hard to know whether the behavioral measures reflect increases in risk over a baseline or just a difference between rejection and discrimination. 

What I find most interesting about these studies, though, is that the reaction to social rejection depends on whether it is interpreted as rejection or as discrimination.  Rejection creates stress.  Discrimination creates vigilance, and perhaps a tendency to be willing to take risks to get high rewards.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Can waiting for something make you more patient?

My dog is not very patient.  If she senses that I might feed her a treat, she comes bounding over and sits begging.  Once she is convinced that there is food for her, it is hard to get her to wait to eat something.  But, people have a remarkable capacity to wait for good outcomes.  College students spend years studying in order to improve their prospects for jobs later in life.  We skip afternoon snacks in order to save our appetite for a great evening dinner.

Of course, we are not completely patient. There are many times where we do pick something good for us in the short-term rather than waiting for something better in the future.  Losing weight is hard, because it is more pleasant to eat good food now than to be in good shape in the future.

A 2013 paper in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes by Xianchi Dai and Ayelet Fishbach explores the possibility that waiting to make a choice may actually help us to be more patient.

The idea is that when you have to wait to make a choice, that increases the value of that choice to you.  The more valuable the choice is, the more that you want to make sure you get the best option.  So, you may be more willing to wait even longer for the best option if you had to wait to make the choice in the first place.

In one study, participants were contacted by email and asked to make a choice.  They were choosing between getting $50 on some date and getting $55 20 days later.  So, the choice was basically about whether people would wait 20 days to get an extra $5. Participants were told that 2 of them would actually receive what they chose, so it was important to choose carefully.

Two groups were told about the decision and were asked to make their choice immediately.  The Near Future group chose between getting $50 in 3 days and $55 in 23 days.  In this condition, about 30% of participants chose the larger reward.  The Distant Future group chose between getting $50 in 30 days or $55 in 50 days.  This increased time frame made people a little more patient.  About 55% of the participants in this condition chose the larger reward. 

The Waiting Period group received an email telling them about the options and then telling them they would receive another email 27 days later when they could make the choice.  This group was choosing between $50 in 3 days and $55 in 23 days.  So, this group had the same options as the Near Future group, though their actual delay was the same length as the Distant Future group.  For these participants, about 85% chose the larger reward.

Other studies in this paper used choices for other kinds of products like iPods and chocolate.  These studies looked at measures of the value people gave to the choice and found that people who had to wait to make the choice felt that the options were more valuable to them.  This greater value made them more interested in getting the better item. 

So, does waiting always make you more patient?

The researchers also explored a slightly different choice.  Sometimes, you make a selection and then have the option to pay extra money to receive your item more quickly.  For example, on-line retailers like Amazon will give you the option to pay extra to have something shipped overnight for a larger fee.

The researchers speculated that if waiting makes the item feel more valuable, then you might be more willing to pay to receive that item quickly.  In one study, participants were offered the chance to get a box of Godiva chocolates in 48 days or to pay $3 to get that same box of chocolates in 6 days.  The researchers manipulated how long the wait felt by either asking them how long it had been since they last had a Godiva chocolate or just asking them to make the choice immediately.  (This manipulation made people selecting between a smaller box of chocolates sooner or a larger box of chocolates later more likely to take the larger box of chocolates later.) 

In this case, participants were more likely to pay $3 to get the chocolates quickly if they felt like they had waited a long time than if they felt like they were choosing immediately.  That is, the waiting period can make a single option feel more valuable and can actually make people more impatient.

What does this mean for you?

If you are trying to be patient, you need to think about the situation you are in.  If you are choosing from among a set of options, waiting to make a choice can help you to focus on the overall value of the options rather than on the time period until you will get them.  If you are choosing when to receive an item, though, then the waiting period may focus you on the time period itself, which can decrease your patience.