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May 6, 2006: The Spice of Life

When I told my wife that I was going to be featured in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, she promptly dialed 911 and asked them to send the men with the nets. She knows that I have a thing about clothes and that the thing is this: I don’t like them. I find them uncomfortable, unimportant, and absurdly overpriced. Indeed, I have learned the hard way that if you are going to say in a loud voice “What kind of idiot spends $300 on a shirt?” you probably shouldn’t say it in the Three Hundred Dollar Shirt aisle of Neiman Marcus where you are surrounded by people who are not pleased to be the answer to your question.

So when I stumbled on a stack of cheap and roomy cargo pants at Costco a few years ago, I bought 15 pairs and have rarely worn anything else since. A style writer at the New York Times got wind of this and thought it would make an entertaining story, and so, to the utter amazement of everyone who has ever known me, I wound up on the fashion page (click here).

Now, I normally wouldn’t agree to do something quite this frivolous, but the New York Times writer promised to use my pocket fetish as an introduction to an area of research that interests me, namely, the tendency for people to choose variety even when doing so lowers their overall satisfaction. If you’ve ever gone to a restaurant and refused to get what you really wanted because your dining companion ordered it first, then you already know how this works. In Stumbling on Happiness, I explain why we fall prey to this “diversifaction bias” (see the section called “Spacethink” in the chapter called “Time Bombs”). If you’re interested in learning more than I told you in my book, I recommend you check out the following articles. (The Read & Loewenstein experiment with the trick-or-treaters is worth the price of admission).

• Simonson, I. (1990). The effect of purchase quantity and timing on variety-seeking behavior. Journal of Marketing Research, 27, 150-162.

• Read, D., & Loewenstein, G. F. (1995). Diversification bias: Explaining the discrepancy in variety seeking between combined and separated choices. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 1, 34-49.

So why am I talking about all this now? In a lovely Dadealus paper entitled “How Not to Spend Your Money,” the economist Bob Frank explains that commuting in traffic is one of the very best ways to lower your overall life satisfaction, and indeed, I am confident that one of the three best things about my life is that I can walk from my house to my office. But the downside of walking is that I no longer get a chance to listen to “All Things Considered” on NPR, which I enjoyed doing back when I was a 25-mile-a-day commuter in Austin, Texas. I recently did a commentary for “All Things Considered” on the topic of variety, and if you are a happy pedestrian like me, then you may have missed it. I’ve reproduced it below. Feel free to print this out and read it in my voice as you walk to work. You can also listen to the archived show on NPR (click here).

Sharing One Secret to Happiness
All Things Considered, May 12, 2006

Maybe it’s because I’m a psychology professor, or maybe it’s because I wrote a book on happiness. But at least twice a week someone asks me for the secret of happiness, which they evidently think I know but have been keeping to myself. They’re surprised when I tell them that the secret of happiness is fresh tortillas and raw jalapenos for breakfast every Sunday.

I moved to Massachusetts from Texas about a decade ago, and the New Englanders who ask me this question are surprised to learn that anyone actually eats raw jalapenos, and much less for breakfast. But what surprises them most isn’t what I eat, but that I eat the same thing every Sunday. Jalapenos may be the spice of Texas, but don’t I know that variety is the spice of life?

Of course I do. But I also know that variety has costs. First, variety requires choice and choice requires time, and I’d rather spend my time writing a book or tickling my granddaughter than deciding what to eat every Sunday morning. I eat the same breakfast every Sunday for the same reason that I own 15 pairs of cargo pants in just two colors. We should only want variety among things that we enjoy thinking about, and I just don’t get much pleasure out of thinking about my breakfast or my trousers.

But there is a second and better reason to be skeptical about variety. Human beings adapt to any pleasure that’s repeated too quickly, which is why the tenth bite of pancakes and syrup is never as good as the first. Variety is a trick we use to circumvent this fact. Instead of taking ten bites of pancake, we take three—taste the hash browns, sample the sausage, sip the orange juice—and then go back for another bite of pancake, which having been ignored for just a few minutes is once again delightful. Variety is a clever way to spice up experiences which—like bites of pancake—occur in rapid succession.

But the same trick backfires when we use it to spice up experiences that are separated by weeks rather than by seconds. My wife sings “Happy Birthday” to me exactly once a year, so I never get tired of hearing it. If just for the sake of variety she were to switch to the national anthem, I’d be less happy, not more. Valentine’s Day is hearts and flowers, New Year’s Eve is champagne and paper hats, and anyone who thinks these holidays would benefit from an infusion of variety is simply missing the point. Variety improves the things that we do too often, but it ruins the things that we don’t do often enough. I have Sunday breakfast just once a week, and it would make me far less happy if just for the sake of variety I occasionally substituted a bowl of New England oatmeal for a plate of those little green jewels, filled with the glorious fire no Yankee can comprehend.

The secret of happiness is variety. But the secret of variety, like the secret of all spices, is knowing when to use it.

Posted by Dan Gilbert on May 6, 2006 | Blog home