Products tend to be less satisfying than experiences. This is old news. Psyblog elaborates on six reasons from a set of (hard to access) recent experiments, which add up to this:
We compare products more than experiences, and since products are doomed to not be the best we could ever have got, we are sad. When we don’t compare, we are happy.
This requires one of two things:
- that when we can’t compare something, we assume it is better than average
- that we find knowing how something compares displeasing in itself unless the thing is the best.
Either of these seem like puzzling behaviour. Why would we do one of them?
The first one reminds me of the way people usually like the children they have more than the hypothetical children of any other combinations of genes they could have had. Similarly but to a lesser extent, people are uncomfortable comparing their friends and partners with others they might have had instead, and in the absence of comparison most people think those they love are pretty good. You rarely hear ‘there are likely about half a billion wives I would like more than you out there, but you are the one I’m arbitrarily in love with’.
This all makes evolutionary sense; blind loyalty is better than ongoing evaluation from an ally, at least towards you. So you evaluate people accurately for a bit, then commit to the good ones. Notice that here the motivation for not comparing appears to come from the benefits of committing to people without regret, rather than the difficulty of figuring out what a nice bottom is worth next to a good career.
I wonder if our not comparing experiences, and rating them well regardless is related. Experiences we buy are often parts of our relationships with other people, while objects usually aren’t. So to compare your experiences and evaluate them as accurately as you can comes dangerously close to comparing bits of your relationships and evaluating them accuracely.
For instance, if I see there was a cheaper airfare than one I took, to entertain the thought that it would have been better to travel a week later is to admit I would give up all the moments you and I spent together on that trip for some other set of experiences and fifty dollars, which feels uncomfortably like calculating and judging our time together as average and replacable.
If this explanation were true there would be less need for the other explanation for not comparing experiences, which is that comparing experiences is naturally more difficult than comparing products. This seems untrue anyway; the added information about products often actually makes it harder to compare, though if you used all your information you would get a better comparison.
For instance, accurately comparing phone plans often requires a large spreadsheet and unrealistic amounts of patience, and you end up ignoring factors like the details of the applications different phones allow. On the other hand with experiences you usually know an easy to calculate price for each, a lot of detail about the one you had, and few of the details of the one you didn’t have. So you can pretty much ignore the details, unless you have some reason to think the experience you had was above or below expectations (if being at the restaurant at that time caused your colleague to get shot, probably the other restaurant would have been better), and go by price.
This explanation predicts that if objects are closely associated with people we would treat them like we do experiences. Gifts are an obvious example, and we are unusually reluctant to compare or trade them, and tend to be especially fond of them.
Another example of objects linked to people is toys that children think of as people. I don’t have more than anecdotal evidence on this, but when I was young I hated plenty of toys that I didn’t own, until I was given one and immediately loved it, out of politeness.
This explanation also predicts that experiences we don’t share we might compare more readily, but I have no evidenec on that.