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That wasn’t so great

Filed in Ideas
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This week, the Decision Science News editor talks about “premium experiences” and counter-evidence to the maxim that things don’t bring happiness.

I own a GPS but not a car.

When I travel, I look forward to getting into a rental, plugging in the GPS and finding the route to the hotel, the conference, or the local place with the best chicken wings. I get a strange pleasure of going to an arbitrary place like, say, Jacksonville, looking on Yelp to find the best place to find an arbitrary food, and then having the GPS guide me there. This is a true pleasure that technology brings me. It’s much better than driving while looking at scraps of paper or a crummy Avis map.

A noted behavioral economist and I were driving to a party once. Naturally, the conversation turned to the GPS. He shared my affection for them and pointed out another use, which is that you can give them to visiting relatives, who are then liberated and can drive themselves around and find their way back home again. He said that his delight in the GPS is unusual, however, as he finds disappointment in most things: especially espressos.

I thought about this a lot.

There is a common bit of advice which is to pay for experiences, not for things. I had always taken that for granted as true. Don’t be materialistic. Don’t pollute the world with needless junk. All that. But, I’m starting to realize that dollar for dollar, it often isn’t true, especially when dealing with premium experiences that are supposed to be great.

Take flying first class. A few years ago, when I first did it, it was great. A warm ramekin of nuts and a vodka tonic, sure, why not? But then, despite a bill that is sometimes $1000 higher, I’ve learned that a first class ticket: won’t get you into the lounge before your flight, won’t assure you your choice of meal (they run out), won’t get you your choice of drink, etc. On the first class flight I took last, the “meal” was a tiny bag of pretzels and a mint. (Guy behind me: “is there any other food?”. Stewardess: “no”).

When I think the supposedly premium “experiences” I’ve had, first class tickets, meals in fancy restaurants, etc., I have trouble remembering them, and those I do remember make me less happy than the $300 gadget that can show me the way to chicken wings nationwide. And when I summon the best experiences I’ve had, most were free.

There have been some comments about getting more specific about what is meant as an experience, and isn’t using the GPS an experience. So a clarification is in order:

With “experiences” I’m thinking of things billed as experiences in themselves: a fancy flight, a fancy meal, a theme park visit, a boat ride, a massage, an indulgence of one sort or the other. Granted, there are some great experiences (e.g. renting a canoe and spending the day on the Housatonic), but I’ve found in the past I’m quite ready to spend on experiences and deprive myself of material things when some material things (e.g. a GPS) are just an astonishing value as they lead to many, many feelings of satisfaction for the price of one supposedly great indulgence.


  1. Kieran says:

    That must be First Class on a US airline, right? Everyone knows US airlines are crap.

    February 6, 2011 @ 3:19 am

  2. dan says:

    Yes, it was American Airlines. As to European airlines, good luck getting an upgrade on them. I tried for three years with BA, flying to the ends of the earth and back, and never got a single upgrade. The full-fare experiences with BA were nice, however, but definitely not worth the marginal increase in price.

    February 6, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  3. KC says:

    I think the defnition of “experiences” and “things” needs clarification. You have placed travel and dinging in both categories (experience and thing). The GPS provides you the experience of travelling without struggle. Yelp provides you the experience of trying new food. Travelling first class and eating in an expensive restaurant are what you put in the experience category. In the literature, I have read on experiences vice things…it is the novel experiences that expand your horizon and your frame of reference that are more beneficial then things. These things create memories that you can experienc eover and over. They can lift your mood when needed. They can help you see a problem in a new light. I have memories from my vacations and adventures; I don’t have memories from the things I buy. These memories are what are valuable.

    February 7, 2011 @ 9:09 am

  4. Tweets that mention GPS, chicken wings, flying first class | Decision Science News -- Topsy.com says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amanda Woolley, Decision Sci News and Organic Econ, Dan Goldstein. Dan Goldstein said: That wasn’t so great http://goo.gl/fb/lxTKZ […]

    February 8, 2011 @ 9:42 am

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