Miswanting and the Pursuit of Unhappiness

So, if you get that Porsche, will you be happy?  How about the larger house on the other side of town?  What about the Plasma TV, new outfit, pair of shoes, etc…?  If you take a minute to reflect on all the things or situations you’ve really wanted… and eventually got.  How many of these contributed to your overall level of happiness as much as you thought they would when you were wanting them?  If you’re like most people, the things you want usually don’t make you as happy as you predict they will and that happiness tends to wear off faster than you expected.

Wanting is an emotional state that drives us to action; based on the prediction of how we’ll feel when we achieve or acquire what we desire.  Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson have observed that, while we tend to think of unhappiness as something that happens when we don’t get what we want, a lot of unhappiness has more to do with not liking what we’ve wanted as much as we expected we would before we got it.

Gilbert and Wilson describe miswanting as a lack of coordination between what we want and what actually makes us happy.    It can include wanting things that don’t actually make us as happy as we predict they will.  It also includes wanting to avoid situations that, in the end, are not as bad as we expect they’ll be.

This effect is pervasive across human experience.  It has a dramatic influence not only on our experiences as customers but on experiences that result from choices we make about the work we do, where we live, who we marry, and virtually every aspect of how we live our lives. 

Research on affective forecasting demonstrates that people routinely overestimate the how much pleasure or displeasure will be associated with future events.  Therefore, people often work hard to create or avoid situations that do not maximize their happiness.  It’s difficult enough to understand what makes us happy or unhappy in the moment.  In most situations, it’s next to impossible to predict what will make us happy or unhappy in the future.

This challenge is amplified in situations that involve tradeoffs between stressful, short-term events and chronic conditions.  For example, do you risk the turmoil of changing careers to pursue your dreams or face the certainty of sticking it out in a job you dislike?  Or are you willing to go through a painful breakup or do you just go on living in a persistently unsatisfying relationship?  In these situations, people generally overestimate the intensity and duration of pain of the short-term events (which they tend to get over faster than expected.)  They also tend to underestimate the cumulative effect of persistent dissatisfaction.  As a result, many people avoid making changes that can lead to a more satisfying life.

Why is it so easy to get what you want and then end up not liking what you get?  This results from the combination of several prediction challenges:

  1. Accurately predicting the details of the future situation.  How do you know what it will really be like to:  own the car, live in that house, get the job, or live with the spouse of your dreams?  In most cases, the situations we desire involve a lot of uncertainty.  We don’t really know what it will be like to be in that situation.  For example, many people might dream about being a movie star without understanding that movie stars have stressful careers, lives, and very little privacy.
  2. Predicting your preferences in that future situation.  Assume you’ve dealt with the first challenge; you can accurately predict all the details of the future situation.  The next challenge is:  does that future situation actually fit with your preferences?  When you evaluate a new job and consider the content of work, who you’ll be working with, the amount of travel, the culture of the organization, etc… does that combination of characteristics fit your preferences?  When you envision your relationship with your potential partner, do your partners’ characteristics and the foundation of how you relate to each other fit your preferences?  In some cases, people can estimate their preferences based on past experience.  However, in most cases they don’t really know their preferences about a specific situation until they’re in that situation.  (We’ll cover this in a future discussion on the Construction of Preferences).
  3. Separating feelings about the future situation from feelings about the current situation.  Assume you could address the first two challenges;  you know exactly how the future situation will unfold and you have complete knowledge of your preferences about that situation… there’s still an additional challenge.   How will that future situation make you feel?  Unfortunately, your prediction about how you’ll feel in the future has a lot to do with how you already feel in the present.  For example, it’s really difficult to make a good decision about a new job when you’re so miserable in your current job that anything looks better.  Similarly, it’s difficult to make a good decision about a new relationship when you’re still in the middle of your current dissatisfying relationship.  It’s like the old rule of thumb… don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry.  Or don’t go to the mall when you’re depressed (unless you want to buy a lot of stuff you don’t need).

So why is this whole topic important for an organization that creates the conditions for their customers’ satisfaction?  Why is it important that an organization pay attention to miswanting in their customers’ experience?  I see two great economic reasons why designing an experience that minimizes miswanting is important:

  • The profitability of most businessses is driven by the “second sale.”  Usually the first sale just offsets the cost of attracting, acquiring, and getting to know the customer.  The second sale is where you have a chance to build positive value in the customer relationship.
  • Attracting and acquiring new customers is increasingly driven by word of mouth recommendations from other customers.

So, if it’s important, how might we address miswanting in the experience design?  This is far from a “solved problem” but I’ll introduce a few of the ideas that we’ve been working with here and elaborate on them in future posts.

  • Design a pre-purchase shopping experience that is as similar as possible to the customers’ post-purchase usage experience. 
  • Reinforce low-pressure sales as a differentiating “signature element” of the experience design.
  • Design sales processes and sales training that emphasize consultative questioning around understanding “why the customers’ buying” not just “what are they looking for.”
  • Institute liberal return policies and communications that ensure that customers’ feel safe returning something that’s not what they expected.
  • Create opportunities for the customer to “rent” or “lease” rather than buy products and services.

These things may seem counterintuitive compared to what most companies do to drive their own short term performance.  However, when the customer feels you are fully on their side and committed to their long term happiness… that’s the kind of experience that leads to high levels of customer loyalty and one that worth it for customers to tell other customers about.  A few of the companies that do elements of this well include:  Guitar Center, Fleet Feet Sports, REI, and Nordstrom.

Well, this post has gone on for a while.  I’m looking forward to getting comments (and criticisms) on this.  I’m expecting there will be some differences of opinion.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing these great ideas. I’m bookmarking this for future reference. Some of these I already do, so the point resonated most strongly with me. Keep feeding the creativity.
    I am currently on holiday so, for this reason, I’ve nothing better to do than surf the web for shopping, lie around and update my blog. Well, more or less anyway.
    Doug C

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