Waiting to Enjoy a Special Gift? Don’t
Holding out for the perfect moment can represent a missed opportunity
If you happened to receive an extra-special gift over the holidays that can be “used” now or later — say, a bottle of wine or a gift certificate to a special restaurant out of your normal budget or a box of high-end golf balls — chances are you’ve tucked it away with the intention to enjoy it at some later date.
That’s your future bias kicking in, according to research published in the Journal of Marketing Behavior. And it may be setting you up to under-enjoy.
In a series of lab experiments, when people were presented with something that they deemed to be of special value, they become extra-motivated to wait for the most perfect time to enjoy/use the gift or purchase. But the tendency is to over-wait, ultimately having a less perfect experience than if they hadn’t put the pressure on themselves to hold out for some elusive ideal time.
In their research, marketing academics Marissa Sharif of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and Suzanne Shu of UCLA Anderson School of Management first established that we behave — consume — differently when presented with something we elevate to “special” status.
More than three-dozen golfers reported that they typically run through a new supply of golf balls ever four to six months. But when given a box of high-end balls, the average time it took to use the balls was one year.
Grad school business students in a wine club said they typically opened two bottles of wine a week –average price $16 – but for special bottles with an average price of $93, they waited two years to open the bottle.
And we are often swayed by circumstance. The researchers ran an experiment where 50 college students were given different explanations for where they acquired a hypothetical box of chocolates. For some it came from the grocery store, for others they were told the chocolate was bought on a special vacation or from a high-end boutique. Then the participants were asked to choose among a variety of scenarios for when they thought they would want to open the box and actually enjoy the chocolates. Participants whose box of chocolate had a “special” back story were the most inclined to wait for a special occasion — a birthday, a romantic date — to open the box, rather than enjoy it with a friend or as a snack.
Why do we hold out on enjoying something special? Well, we seem to be motivated by regret. Or more to the point: the prospect of regret. We wait to consume because we fear that it is not the perfect time, person, opportunity. Regret of what may be keeps us from enjoying what can be right now.
Now, if waiting paid off with a high level of satisfaction, that would reduce all this to “so what.” But that’s not what seems to happen.
In another experiment, the researchers set up another hypothetical for college students. They were given a list of 20 musical acts and asked to rank them by their personal preference. Then they were told a friend of theirs could get them a free pass they could use over the course of a 15-week summer concert series. Some participants were told their deal also came with special back-stage passes; other participants were just presented with lawn seating. To further accentuate the “special” factor, some participants were told this was a one-time deal, while others were told their friend would be able to land them other discounts/deals later in the season.
The participants never saw the complete list of performers. Rather, they were given one act at a time and asked if they wanted to use their free pass or wait to see what the next week(s) acts would be. Participants who weren’t given the special passes made a choice sooner in the 15-week cycle, and landed on a band that was higher ranked on their preferred list than participants who had the special pass and waited longer to make a choice.
To avoid over-delaying your gratification of a special gift, or a future goal (a bucket-list vacation, perhaps?) you might want to consider a trick behavior psychologists have found effective: Pre-commit. That is, set a date for when you will enjoy. Any date. Next week. Next birthday. Next anniversary. What are you waiting for? Two wine critics had just that in mind nearly 20 years ago when they created Open That Bottle Night, to encourage people to consume, rather than save, special wines.