Hedonic Contrast

Evaluations of products and experiences can change dramatically depending on how they compare with other products and experiences. My dissertation focuses on understanding what leads people to pay attention to - or ignore - salient comparisons or even a particular aspect of a specific comparison, and how this affects their choices and experiences.

Pain is More Contrast-Dependent Than Pleasure 

With Nathan Novemsky, Psychological Science, 2021

The first chapter of my dissertation shows that, in general, pain is more contrast-dependent than pleasure. For example, I find that losing time in traffic is less annoying if one’s friend got stuck in traffic for longer, but the happiness from saving time remains relatively undiminished if one’s friend saved even more time. I also show an important implication of this asymmetry: because contrast lowers the impact of negative outcomes more than that of positive outcomes, risky propositions become more attractive in the presence of extreme comparisons. I demonstrate this with incentive-compatible studies of monetary choices, as well as with other choice scenarios. For example, I find that people are more likely to endorse an experimental drug that may increase or decrease survival rate if it is evaluated in the presence of another drug that could have affected the survival rate much more significantly in either direction. I show that the asymmetry occurs because people are much more likely to pay attention to comparisons when evaluating negative outcomes, such that prompting them to pay attention to comparisons eliminates the asymmetric contrast effect. For instance, the hedonic impact of losing money, but not gaining money, is weakened if losses and gains are evaluated in the context of a much larger sum; however, prompting people to pay attention to the larger sum leads them to experience contrast regardless of whether they evaluate gains or losses.

Negative Contrast is Quantitative and Positive Contrast is Qualitative

With Nathan Novemsky, invited for revision at JCR

The second chapter of my dissertation investigates how greater attention to comparisons in the negative domain manifests in consumers’ product choices. Thankfully, most products are not inherently “negative.” Rather, the evaluation of a product is largely determined by how it compares with other products. I show that consumers only attend to the size of unfavorable comparisons. In other words, contrast effects from favorable, but not unfavorable, comparisons are independent of the size of the difference between products. As a result, increasing the difference between products results in one product appearing worse without the other appearing better. I also show how this asymmetry affects choice when product represent a tradeoff, each comparing favorably with the other with respect to some attributes, and unfavorably with respect to other attributes: increasing the size of the tradeoff lowers evaluations of both products with respect to the attributes for which they compare unfavorably with the other product, without improving product evaluations with respect to the attributes for which they compare favorably. Consequently, increasing the tradeoff between products hurts evaluations of both products and, as I show in incentive-compatible studies, lowers their purchase likelihood.

Expecting a Future Positive Experience Reduces Adaptation to a Negative Experience

With Minju Han and Ravi Dhar

The third chapter of my dissertation extends my investigation of when consumers pay attention to comparisons into the domain of hedonic experiences. When going through negative experiences, people often think about what comes next: the traveler in the middle seat thinks about her next connecting flight, and a student in a boring lecture thinks about her next class. I find that expecting a future positive experience reduces adaptation to a negative experience. For instance, I show that people who expect to listen to two songs in very low sound quality adapt to the sound quality of the first song faster than people who expect the second song to play in high sound quality. I show that this occurs because expecting the negative attribute of an experience to change with the subsequent experience – either for better or for worse – interferes with adaptation. For example, I find that people adapt to an unpleasant YouTube video at a slower rate if they expect the subsequent video to be either more or less pleasant. This occurs because people focus their attention on the negative attribute of an experience if they expect it to change. In fact, I show that expecting a negative aspect of an experience to change interferes with adaptation as much as instructing people to focus their attention on the negative aspect of their ongoing experience.