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The grass isn't greener

How quests for improvement can cause us to lose sight of the value of current choices

There are many consumer decisions that we have to make over and over again, such as selecting a restaurant to eat at in our neighborhood or deciding which store to shop at for groceries. The repetitive nature of these decisions provides us with the opportunity to learn from past choices and improve our future choices. However, new research from the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research shows that our quest for improvement may result in a failure to appreciate the value of our current choice.

In a series of eight experiments, Tom Meyvis (New York University) and Alan Cooke (University of Florida) find that when consumers expect to make similar choices in the future, they selectively pay attention to information that suggests that an alternative would be better. These consumers also tend to disregard information that indicates their current choice is the best possible choice.

“Our findings suggest that consumers who are focused on the future are so preoccupied with finding ways to improve their situation that they become overly sensitive to information that points to such opportunities — and lose sight of the relative advantages of their current choice,” the authors explain.

For example, Meyvis and Cooke asked study participants to choose among three stores on a series of simulated shopping trips. After each trip, they were shown the price charged for a product at their chosen store and the prices charged at each of the other two stores.

After going on a series of shopping trips, participants were then asked to indicate which store was the cheapest and whether they would want to switch to another store for a second set of shopping trips.

Notably, the investigators found that when participants were told in advance that they would make a second set of shopping trips, they were less likely to prefer the store they initially chose and more likely to switch to another store after the first set of trips. In addition, they also thought the store they chose was the most expensive fifty percent more of the time. This phenomenon was replicated in later studies even when the chosen store was less expensive than the other two stores.

In contrast, participants who did not expect to have to make a second choice accurately recalled an equal number of trips on which the chosen store was cheaper or more expensive.

“Ironically, participants who were preparing for future decisions, and should therefore be more motivated to learn from their past choices, were less likely to realize that they had selected the cheapest store and were more likely to switch to other, more expensive stores,” the authors write.

Additional evidence suggests that consumers who anticipate future choices selectively search for ways to improve their current situation and disproportionately pay attention to better prices at other stores.

As the authors explain, “As a result, forward looking consumers overestimate how green the grass is on the other side of the fence, leading them to abandon their chosen store for an often objectively inferior alternative.”

Suzanne Wu | EurekAlert!
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