Choosing Less-Preferred Experiences for the Sake of Variety

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Citation: Rebecca Ratner, Barbara Kahn, Daniel Kahneman (1999) Choosing Less-Preferred Experiences for the Sake of Variety. Journal of Consumer Research (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1086/209547
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1086/209547
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1086/209547
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Choosing Less-Preferred Experiences for the Sake of Variety
Tagged: Consumer Behavior (RSS), Consumer Research (RSS)


This paper shows that, individuals choose to switch to less-preferred options even though they enjoy those options less than they would have enjoyed a repeat of a more-preferred option. The authors research two theories for why this occurs. The first theory they test is that consumers choose less enjoyable experiences because their favorites benefit from the comparison to the less-pleasant experiences. The second theory they test is that consumers remember their choice sequence more favorably overall if it contains a varied set of experiences.

Variety-seeking behavior is the tendency for an individual to switch from one item or experience to another. This can be due to intrapersonal factors, interpersonal factors, or uncertainty about future preferences. Researchers in the past have shown that if individuals repeatedly consume a product, they can become satiated (at least temporarily) with that product and prefer to consume another product next. Note that previous researchers have not attempted to measure the actual enjoyment derived from individuals’ consumption of each product. Recent research has begun to seriously consider the idea that consumers’ pattern of choice does not always seek to maximize enjoyment or satisfaction.

The authors conducted five experiments to test their theories. Participants in the experiments were asked to come into a computer lab and listen to a series of brief classic rock songs. Each experiment was slightly modified in order to test different components of the theories stated above.

Experiment 1 tested the validity of the real time ratings procedure used to record participants’ enjoyment in the following studies. The authors compared the ratings participants gave to two sequences: one where they heard their favorite song repeatedly, and the other where they heard their favorite song mixed with their least favorite song. It was predicted that participants’ ratings would decline over time when they heard one of their favorite songs repeatedly. Results indicated that including less preferred songs protects individuals from satiation of their favorite song during long sequences.

Experiment 2 tested whether songs benefit from the contrast to less enjoyable songs. The experiment was set up similarly to experiment 1 and was designed to test whether participants enjoy a song more following a less preferred song than following silence or a more preferred song. Results showed no evidence of an increase in enjoyment following less preferred songs. These results conflicted with the first theory stated above.

Experiment 3 tested the hypothesis that individuals’ global evaluation of a sequence would benefit if it contained a varied set or a larger number less preferred items/experiences. Each participant listed to two high variety and two low variety sequences (high variety means the sequences includes a greater number of less preferred songs than the low variety). Results indicated that participants’ real time ratings of enjoyment were higher in the low variety sequences than the high variety sequences and the same results held for retrospective ratings. The more participants enjoyed the experience in real time, the more likely they were to indicate they enjoyed the sequence later.

Experiment 4 provided a second test of the theory tested in experiment 3. However in this case, participants listened to longer sequences, including a greater number of less preferred songs. Participants’ ratings were higher in retrospect for the high variety sequences but not the low variety sequences. However, real time ratings were lower for high variety sequences and higher for low variety sequences. The results further support the theory that retrospective evaluations favor sequences that include more distinct experiences, even if they are not preferred.

Experiment 5 was conducted to provide a more conclusive test of the theory that participants freely choose to hear songs that are less preferred. Results showed that although participants did not show a significant decrease in enjoyment in the low variety sequences, they did experience an improving trend in enjoyment at the end of the high variety sequences. Thus, it was shown that individuals chose to listen to songs that provided less utility than others that were available.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Even though individuals' varied experiences may not lead to the maximum satisfaction in real time, retrospective evaluations favor these experiences. Businesses should keep this in mind when creating customer experiences that only favor one product or sequence to maximize customer satisfaction; it could make sense to provide some variety.