A hedonic notion

“Hedonic” is a term that always catches my eye. It’s a spicy-sounding word that livens up the gray world of economics. Economics, my professors said, is a study of “hedonic” factors. This observation inspired smiles and chuckles among students. After all, we fancied ourselves experts on hedonism, and now we’re going to get academic credit for it.

Ah, those were the days. As for these days, whether you’re indulging your hedonic tastes as a consumer, or shrewdly exploiting those tastes as a business, I’ll mention a term I’ve been seeing lately. It’s “hedonic adaptation.”

The concept of hedonic adaptation is that people get bored with the familiar pleasures; they get used to them, or, in other words, adapted to them. Academic studies have looked into such things. Professors are being quoted with advice on how to stave off ho-hum routines by spicing them up with some novelty. One article, for example, suggested eating popcorn with chopsticks in order to make the snack more enjoyable. (This would, of course, assume that you’re not already in the habit of eating popcorn with chopsticks.)

I haven’t bothered to look up the actual studies on hedonic adaptation, but I’ll certainly buy the notion that the mass mind quickly gets bored with familiar things. As a result, it often craves novelty and, in particular, constant amusement. After all, the ancient observation about bread and circuses has earned cliche status for good reason. Meanwhile, modern technology delivers a constant stream of electronic novelties; you can put the circus in your pocket.

Although mass markets are driven by the mass mind, thus creating massive fortunes in the process, I don’t think that hedonic adaptation, or the resulting novelty-seeking, is a universal trait.

After all, there are always traditionalists out there, people who savor the experience of enjoying familiar things and familiar rituals in familiar ways.

Upscale clothing stores and furniture stores, for example, are often based around traditional styles and wares. And expensive liquors are often regarded as products of generational custom; Grandfather’s favored brand of expensive Scotch may be on the shopping list for several subsequent generations. Here, continuity, not novelty, is part of the appeal.

Although it’s not a perfect means of division, you could probably take a rough cut at the consumer market by considering one camp as novelty-seekers and the other camp as traditionalists.

With that distinction in mind, based on my beach chair observations of the world at large, I’d say the novelty-seekers seem to live for the next moment; they enjoy the anticipation. Traditionalists, by contrast, are content to dwell in the current moment based on its own merits.

Even seasoned marketing experts can have a hard time juggling the traditional and the novel. An advertising executive who handled major automotive clients told me about one such situation. Here’s how he put it:

The suits at automotive headquarters preferred dignified, even slightly stodgy, ads, written by the most sophisticated minds in the business, in order to develop long-term cachet for the brand.

Meanwhile, the actual dealers preferred an ever-changing stream of locally-produced TV ads featuring lots of noise, colorful balloons or other bling, and guys in gorilla consumes jumping around.

I asked the executive who was right, the suits or the dealers. He just shrugged.

I still chuckle about that gorilla costume quip, and last year I did, indeed, see a giant inflatable gorilla at a car dealership. I guess some things never change. They just change scale.

One of the biggest follies in business history happened in 1985. That’s when the Coca-Cola Company announced it was retiring its 99 year-old formula in favor of a newly-formulated “New Coke.” Hey, 99 years is a long time, so the market must have been aching for something with a fresh new taste, right?

Well, wrong. Coke’s customers freaked out. The company relented, and the normal, familiar, old stuff, labeled as “Classic” Coke, was soon back on the market. Apparently, even the mass market’s mind can have traditional inclinations.

As memorable as that event was (at least to codgers like me), I’ll admit that the novelty-seeking factor is the dominant force these days. In the age of high tech, where a new experience is just a screen-refresh away, hedonic adaptation looks like it’s on an accelerating treadmill. People can’t race through the present fast enough to get to the next moment. The next moment, however, merely becomes the present once it arrives, and so the mind races ahead once again.

This whole gig is going to get mighty wacky when people start discounting the present moment to the point where it has no value at all.

We’ll have to re-write the economics texts at that point. I’m ready for that. I sharpened my pencil, found my calculator, and I just got fitted for my new gorilla suit.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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