We live in a society of total consumption: not just the physical consumption of things but also the conceptual consumption of ideas. We’re always on the lookout for tasty new morsels of information and unusual experiences to add to our ever-expanding mental collections.
Mere things like your wattle and daub hut, several oxen and a shiny necklace are no longer impressive; now you need to have followed the Inca trail, formed an opinion on G. K. Chesterton’s Christian apologetics and be familiar with the Higgs boson’s role in a grand unified theory.
Negative conceptual consumption
The idea that people are voracious consumers of concepts is far from new, but it is only just starting to filter into the psychological literature. In an article published in the new Annual Review of Psychology, Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton point out that conceptual consumption is especially useful for explaining why people choose certain types of apparently negative experiences (Ariely & Norton, 2009; PDF).
Take horror movies for example. Over the years all sorts of explanations have been offered for why people voluntarily expose themselves to scary movies: that there is a certain type of pleasure mixed in with the fear (Andrade & Cohen, 2007); that they are relieved when it’s over; that they enjoy the ‘rush’ while knowing there is no threat. But as any horror nut will tell you, there’s more to it than that.
Horror movies may be a minority taste but there are all sorts of other common situations in which people choose experiences they know are going to be unpleasant. In a study carried out by Keinan and Kivetz (2008) participants were offered the choice of a free trip to either a Marriott Hotel in Florida or an ice hotel in Quebec. Strangely (for me anyway!) the majority preferred the ice hotel despite thinking the Marriot would be more pleasurable.
People will also happily make strange choices about food. In another study by Keinan and Kivetz (2008) participants were offered a choice between ‘normal’ flavours of ice-cream and a tasty bowl of bacon ice-cream. By now you’ll be unsurprised to learn that many preferred bacon flavour despite knowing it would be less pleasurable.
The experiential CV
All three of these examples are partly explained by people’s desire for conceptual consumption. When people choose the ice hotel, the scary movie and the bacon ice-cream, they are choosing more than just the experience itself. They know the movie will frighten them, the icy bed will be uncomfortable and the bacon ice-cream will be weird, but there is a clear payoff in conceptual consumption. It’s not just bragging rights, they also like the very idea of each of these things and they want to ‘possess’ the experience.
It’s also about self-image. People want to see themselves, and be seen by others, as interesting people who choose a variety of different experiences for themselves. It’s what Keinan and Kivetz refer to as ticking the boxes on our experiential CVs. Collecting experiences is really very similar to collecting bottle-tops, postcards or Furbies, but much cooler — perhaps because the balance of consumption is weighted away from the physical and more towards the conceptual.
Positive conceptual consumption
The fact that conceptual consumption can be used to understand why people choose apparently negative experiences is it’s strength. Why people might choose positive experiences is less of a mystery, but the idea can still expose some interesting quirks:
- Feature creep: people frequently choose products with many features which they never use. This may be primarily so they can then show off their purchase to others. Just the idea of having a better camera than other people is enough to snuff out boring thoughts about usability. Of course manufacturers are well aware of this, hence electronics are packed with endless features most of us never use.
- Charity: giving to charity seems to confer positive benefits on the giver. Giving our own money to others does actually seem to make us happier than spending it on ourselves (Dunn, Aknin & Norton, 2008). Here it’s possible that the idea of charity makes us happier than having the money or equivalent goods.
- Second Life: people in virtual worlds happily convert their real-world money into virtual money to buy clothes for their avatars (the object representing themeselves) or to decorate their virtual homes. When viewed through the lens of conceptual consumption this makes perfect sense.
Looking around, conceptual consumption is everywhere. Things like books, TV programmes, blogs, newspapers and magazines — all of which give us new ideas and new ways of seeing the world — are just the tip of the iceberg. Even what we might think of as primarily physical consumption isn’t really that physical after all. Advertisers understand this only too well: what they are trying to sell aren’t just products but ideas, often in the form of ‘lifestyles’.
As Ariely and Norton point out even something as simple as eating a cookie is fraught with conceptual questions. What about the diet we just started? Is the cookie organic? What will our co-workers think if they see us eating it? The questions go on and on.
Our minds love consuming concepts almost as much as our bodies crave food. Like our appetite for food, though, our appetite for ideas is only satisfied for a short period before we become hungry again, so hopefully this nugget of conceptual consumption will keep you going until the next click…
→ This post is part of a series on consumer psychology:
- How Beliefs and Values Influence What Tastes Good
- Six Psychological Reasons Consumer Culture is Unsatisfying
- Buying Green is About Being Seen
- Faking It: The Psychological Cost
- Why Loud Music in Bars Increases Alcohol Consumption
- Why Do People Watch Scary Movies, Stay in Ice Hotels or Eat Bacon-Flavoured Ice-Cream?
- How to Choose Between Experiential and Material Purchases
- Ads For Unhealthy Foods Increase Children’s Consumption 45%
- Diners Spend More In Lavender-Scented Restaurant
- Barry Schwartz on Why Too Much Choice is Bad for Us
- Sex Doesn’t Sell (Neither Does Violence)