April 8, 2011

Virtuous Fun

New research helps explain the appeal of unusual — and often unpleasant — experiences.

Simone Gubar

There are certain high achievers who struggle with one activity in particular: taking a vacation.

But convincing your workaholic friend or spouse — or your customer — to invest in a vacation may be easier than you think, thanks to new research by Anat Keinan, PhD ’07, and Ran Kivetz, the Philip H. Geier Jr. Professor of Marketing.

The findings, highlighted in the April issue of the Journal of Consumer Research and drawn from Keinan’s doctoral dissertation, reveal that people who are focused on feeling productive gravitate towards unusual or “collectable” leisure activities that allow them to feel a sense of achievement. The research builds on earlier studies by Kivetz and Keinan showing that people tend to choose work over pleasure to avoid feeling guilty — and then regret it later on. Kivetz and his colleagues call this focus on the future payoff of responsible choices “hyperopia,” or excessive farsightedness. “It revolves around the idea that people want to be responsible, virtuous, and good,” says Kivetz.

The new research shows that this phenomenon is so extreme that some people try to be productive even when they’re not working. These consumers are checking off items on their “experiential checklist,” Keinan and Kivetz write. “Even when it comes to the little amount of time that people allow themselves to spend on vacation, they need to feel a sense of progress,” says Keinan, who is now an assistant professor of marketing at Harvard Business School. “People are infusing their vacations with the same amount of achievement they associate with work.”

To prove this phenomenon, Keinan and Kivetz conducted a series of lab and field studies involving college students, revelers celebrating New Year’s Eve at Times Square, AARP members, park visitors, train and airport travelers, and people trying to visit all 50 states. Time and time again, participants who demonstrated a “productivity orientation” chose the unusual over the typical leisure experience — and often the one predicted to be less pleasurable.

In one study, for example, Keinan and Kivetz approached park visitors wearing watches and asked them to make two choices: American or Faroe Islands cuisine — which was described as “exotic” and “unusual” — and a Florida resort or an Alaskan ice hotel vacation. After the survey, participants were asked to show the experimenter their watches. Interestingly, those who set their watches faster than the accurate time — a correlate for a productivity orientation, according to Keinan and Kivetz — were more likely to choose the unusual experience.

While prior research suggests that it’s impulsive people who choose these novel experiences, Keinan and Kivetz found the opposite to be true: these are consumers who are intentionally planning ahead. “People are choosing these unusual activities to build a memory — not to enjoy them in the short-term,” says Kivetz.

In their conceptualization of collectable experiences, Keinan and Kivetz turned to the hobby of collecting physical objects like coins and stamps — a pastime that took off during the Great Depression, when both the government and the media encouraged unemployed people to build collections in order to feel a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Analogous to collectors of physical objects, experience collectors don’t repeat the same experience twice and perceive rare experiences as more memorable — and more valuable.

In another study, for example, Keinan and Kivetz looked at the experience of spending New Year’s Eve at Times Square, which is rated as a popular goal on 43things.com, a website where members report on their personal goals. As part of their experiment, Keinan and Kivetz informed revelers who had been standing in cold weather for several hours that it was going to snow. When the researchers told some people that this would be the first time in the last 15 years that it would be snowing on New Year’s Eve in New York at midnight — thereby increasing the rareness or “collectability” of the experience — these revelers were more likely than the others to hope for snow.

Strategies for Marketers — and Workaholics

The research helps explain the growing popularity of odd experiences like staying at an ice hotel — where guests sleep on beds made of ice — and eating at restaurants that serve such inventive fare as live octopus and bacon-flavored ice cream. It also offers useful strategies to marketers, especially those of luxury goods, who are increasingly selling experiences — like cooking lessons and adventure travel — rather than physical items.

The findings suggest that marketers of novel experiences and day-to-day items alike should give consumers the opportunity to form and complete a collection. Grand Harvest Wines, for example, advertises its scotch club as a means of “acquiring a collection of the best and rarest single malt scotches.” Another example is the Hard Rock Café, which positions each of its restaurants as a different experience and encourages customers to visit all Hard Rock Café locations. “If you’re a creative marketer,” says Keinan, “you can take any product and position it in a way that gives people a chance to experience something new.”

Marketers should also be sure to offer souvenirs and memorabilia, which can be sold at a premium: Productivity-oriented participants in Keinan and Kivetz’s studies reported a high tendency to collect souvenirs from the places they visit, suggesting that these consumers want to document their accomplishments and, like any collector, record their progress.

Kivetz and Keinan encourage marketers of unusual experiences to target consumers who are reaching significant milestones in their lives like graduating from college or celebrating a 40th birthday. “People often see these milestones as deadlines for personal bucket lists,” says Keinan. In other words, if you don’t go skydiving now, when will you?

And it’s not just young people who are looking for that off-the-beaten path beer spa or helicopter tour: the research suggests that marketers of unusual experiences should target the 80 million baby boomers — the largest, fastest-growing, and most affluent demographic in the United States — as they retire over the next decade. In one study, Keinan and Kivetz surveyed AARP members and found that those participants who explicitly mentioned a desire to feel productive said that when they retire they’d prefer to travel and see as many places as possible rather than stay at a luxurious resort.

“People — and psychologists — expect that it’s only teens and 20-somethings who are attracted to these new experiences, but we have also observed this phenomenon among older consumers,” says Keinan. “And this is a population that is very often neglected by marketers of collectable experiences.”

As for your workaholic friend, think about how to spin time off as time on. “Build a vacation that offers them a chance to learn or do something new so that they can tell themselves that they’re being productive,” says Kivetz. “A little self-deception can be a good thing.”

Related research by Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng, PhD ’05, shows that when consumers believe that they are making progress towards a goal, they intensify their efforts. To learn more, visit Columbia Ideas at Work.

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