WHY DO WE POSTPONE PLEASURE
Suzanne Shu Investigates Delayed Consumption of Enjoyable Activities
Why do we store great bottles of wine until they are undrinkable, put gift certificates away until they expire or delay visiting popular tourist destinations in our own backyard? And how do we decide exactly when to buy cars, homes and other major items that require thought and planning? These decision timing questions are explored in an article called "Future-Biased Search: The Quest for the Ideal," by UCLA Anderson Assistant Professor Suzanne Shu that appeared this year in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.
"I'm particularly interested in luxury or indulgence type goods that you might only purchase once in a great while," she says. "How do people time that consumption? Or if someone has a really special bottle of wine, and they're not going to buy another one soon, when will they choose to drink it? These are interesting decision timing problems. The fact that we postpone doing things that we enjoy is really curious to me."
One reason these decisions are difficult, according to Shu, is that people idealize the experience represented by the decision. "People often imagine a perfect scenario," she says. "It's like someone looking for the perfect mate. You have an optimal image in mind and become unwilling to accept anything else. You can apply this idea to a lot of different situations."
To explore this, Shu conducted three different experiments in which subjects were asked to decide when to use a hypothetical free airline ticket. In each experiment, a scenario was created that challenged subjects to make optimal use of the ticket. "This is a situation a lot of us have been in," says Shu. "If you have frequent flier miles, you don't want to use them on just any trip. You want it to be something good that would normally be expensive and you're looking for that right match."
The results of the experiments were consistent. Subjects tended to postpone using the ticket - missing the point in the scenario when use of the ticket was optimal. "People clearly waited too long," Shu says. "They had in their mind that there's a perfect time and they overestimated how often that's going to happen. By looking and looking, they bypassed other opportunities."
Shu refers to the tendency to postpone pleasurable experiences while waiting for something better to come along as, "future bias." In contrast, she describes the tendency to postpone aversive experiences as "procrastination."
In another study, Shu found that tourists in a given city tend to have visited more local attractions than local residents. "When is the perfect time to go to the Getty Center?" she asks. "Well, it should be sunny and we shouldn't have a lot of other responsibilities. Maybe it will be a reward for a tough week at work. You want to be in a certain mood and feel adventurous. So we build up in our mind what that ideal occasion looks like. And it never comes. It's just such a rare opportunity to get the right combination that you're hoping for."
Shu says she has learned that there are times to accept something that is less than ideal. "Maybe I've got a list of six criteria for something. I may decide that hitting four of those six is close enough and that I'm just going to go ahead and go for it. That's kind of a 'seize the day' approach. I have to be willing to take something that's not quite my ideal. Otherwise, it's never going to happen.
"Maybe you open that really good bottle of wine," she continues. "If another really nice occasion comes along -- you buy another bottle of wine. So there might be a cost but you wind up with multiple peak experiences instead of waiting for an occasion that might never come."
Shu has found that future bias can be a factor in how people use gift cards and certificates. The more distant the expiration date on a gift card, the less likely it is to be used. "I've had this happen," she says, "where I receive a gift card to a nice restaurant and I start waiting for just the right occasion. So I put the card away and forget that I have it. If a gift card has a very short expiration date, you tend to use it right away."
Shu has two recommendations for those who receive gift cards. "One, decide right on the spot when you are going to use it -- and make the card itself the special occasion," she says. "The other approach is to give yourself a short timeframe to use the card. Treat it as though there's a much tighter expiration date than there really is. A person almost has to set a deadline."
One reason people may postpone pleasure, according to Shu, is the fear that they will regret having acted too soon if that ideal occasion presents itself later. "If I open the wine on a second-best occasion and something else comes along later, how much regret am I going to feel having done it too early?" she says. "On the other hand, I will also feel regret if I keep passing up opportunities until the wine goes bad."
Shu feels that people tend to overestimate the regret they may feel from acting too soon. "It's actually not so bad since you enjoyed yourself even though the experience may have been better if you had waited," she says. "Whereas those who pass up every opportunity and ultimately never act really feel the most regret."
Shu plans to continue studying timing decisions and how people create the ideal images that cause them to postpone pleasurable experiences. "What does that ideal look like in their mind? Why do they overestimate the severity of regret from acting too soon? And how do they gauge the likelihood that an ideal occasion will come along? One of my predictions is that people overestimate this probability."
What about the challenge of finding the ideal mate? "That's a tough one," she says. "A person who's very rational might say, 'Okay, I'm going to give myself a certain number of years of searching and figuring out how likely it is to find somebody who meets all my criteria. Then you may have to adjust your criteria. Bottles of wine and trips to the Getty are a little easier to deal with."