LAST MINUTE SHOPPERS ARE NICER PEOPLE
WHY LAST-MINUTE SHOPPERS ARE NICER PEOPLE
Hoping to get something special for Valentines? Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell recommends that you shouldn’t give your beloved too much advance warning of what you want - or those roses might turn out to be a bunch of chrysanthemums.
In the Game of Thrones, Ned Stark warns us to brace ourselves because winter is coming. In our Earthly realm, however, it’s less about bracing ourselves from the White Walkers of Westeros and more for the onslaught of needing to continually buy stuff. December brought Christmas and this month it is Valentine’s Day. Some cope with the onslaught by shopping early. Procrastinators, however—well, they procrastinate. These last-minute shoppers may be spending more on gifts than the early birds: recent research published in the prestigious
Nature hints at one possible reason for this phenomenon…
By monitoring individual’s behavior in a variety of money-orientated situations, psychology researchers have observed that people are more generous when they make decisions quickly – and more stingy when they take their time. One conclusion is that kindness and co-operation are intuitive to humans, and that we become selfish only when we calculate and think too much.
How to get what you want
Based on such results, we could employ some rather devious tactics. Should we consider buying gifts earlier, whilst encouraging family members to put it off so that we get more expensive gifts? The evidence that last-minute shoppers spend more stretches back many years and is
controversial. In 1993, marketing researcher Anthony Miyazaki found no link between the amount spent on Christmas gifts and time pressure. However, his experiments were flawed: for each individual he observed, Miyazaki only recorded one day out of what might have been many days of holiday shopping. More recently, former Internet company Meebo sampled shopping and personality data from over 2,000 users. They found that last-minute shoppers were 45 percent more likely than regular shoppers to purchase luxury gift items and 27 percent more likely to plan on spending more during the holiday season this year than last
year. In contrast, early bird shoppers were 34 percent more likely than regular shoppers to say they were bargain hunters, and 30 percent more likely to use coupons. So there’s at least some evidence that late shoppers are willing to spend more at crunch time.
Are we mean-spirited or just masking the pain?
The traditional theory for why time pressure leads to higher spending has nothing to do with being generous. Renowned marketing researchers like Leonard Berry and economists like Gary Becker claimed that as we run out of time (a limited ‘resource’ that can be ‘saved’ or ‘spent’), we become more willing to give up other resources (like money) to fulfill our goals – like getting a gift for paternal affine Great Uncle Bart to help him remember you in his will. Other marketing researchers believe that we are willing to pay more when we are pressed for time because we are trying to make up for the emotional pain we will feel in the aftermath of disappointing someone else with our lack of planning and forethought.
The tortoise and the hair: the devil and the angel
For psychologist-economist-Nobel Laureate and best-selling author Daniel Kahneman, emotions and gut feelings play a central role in our gift giving. In his recent book, Thinking,
Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes two reasoning systems that operate on different time scales. ‘System 1’ is fast: it is automatic, emotional, stereotypic, and subconscious. We use it frequently because rules of thumb, while imperfect, aren’t too intellectually taxing, and they often work. ‘System 2’ is slow: it is effortful, logical, calculating, and conscious. We use it infrequently because it takes a lot of energy and time to think this way. Evolutionary biologists and some economists think that we use System 2 so much because today’s problems are so varied and complex. Under such circumstances, methodical calculation is more costly than more flexible – albeit flawed – rules of thumb. Among humans, natural selection has favored a brain that operates under System 1 when we find ourselves in a tight spot. Yet given enough time to think about something, we shift into ‘analytical’ System 2 thinking, which is less cooperative – and, as a new study suggests, more stingy. Experts from Harvard’s Department of Psychology wrap it up like this: when in doubt, cooperate. Harvard researchers analyzed the behavior of four participants in a ‘public goods’ game. The rules are that players are given a number of money tokens at the start and secretly choose how many to put into a public pot. The researchers found that individuals who took 10 seconds or less to make a decision made contributions about 1.2 times the size of those made by individuals taking longer than 10 seconds to decide. More generally, contributions decreased with each additional second of decision time. They also found that individuals forced to make a decision quickly made slightly larger contributions than individuals whose decision time was unconstrained, who in turn made slightly larger contributions than individuals
whose decisions were deliberately delayed. An even more interesting finding may reassure anyone with a happy home life: generosity came more naturally to people who graded their daily social partners (e.g. their husband or wife) as cooperative. So what does this mean for your gift shopping? Will you overspend on your true love this Valentine’s Day? If you are worried about being a disappointment, I might advise that you give it some serious thought. But then again, your Valentine won’t thank me for that.
• Berry LL (1979) The time buying consumer. J. Retailing 55: 58-69.
• Binmore K, Samuelson L (1994) An economist’s perspective on the evolution of norms. J. Inst. Theoretical Econ. 150: 45-63.
• Becker G (1965) A theory of the allocation of time. The Economic Journal 75: 493-517.
• Houston AI, McNamara JM, Steer MD (2007) Do we expect natural selection to produce rational behaviour? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 29: 1531-1543.
• Hutchinson JMC, Gigerenzer G (2005) Simple heuristics and rules of thumb: Where psychologists and behavioural biologists might meet. Behavioural Processes 69: 97-124.
• Kahneman D (2011) Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 499 p. • Miyazaki AD (1993) How many shopping days until Christmas? A preliminary investigation of time pressures, deadlines, and planning levels on holiday gift purchases. In: McAlister L, Rothschild ML, editors. Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20. Association for Consumer Research. pp. 331-335.
• Morgilin C, Aaker JL, Pennington GL (2008) Time will tell: The distant appeal of promotion and imminent appeal of prevention. J. Consum. Res. 34: 670-681.
• Rand DG, Greene JD, Nowak MA (2012) Spontaneous giving and calculated greed. Nature 489: 427430.
• The Meebo study was originally reported by Ki Mae Heussner for Adweek.