Experiences vs. Possessions: You Are What You've Done, Not What You Own

Picture of the beach
A walk on the beach is an experience you will use to define who you are.
In the last few years psychology research (e.g. Carter & Gilovich, 2010) has proven what many of us have long suspected: that experiences (vacations, events with friends, etc) make people happier than buying and owning stuff (computers, clothes, etc). But more recent research by the same duo (Carter & Gilovich, 2012) shows that the experience vs. possession difference goes further than they thought.
Why are experiences more important? — In their newest reserach Carter and Gilovich wanted to find out why we value experiences over possessions. Their theory was that people use experiences to define their sense of self more than they use possessions. This proved to be true. People in their study talked about their experiences more than possessions when they told their “life stories”. When talking about purchases and possessions they were more likely to feel that a purchase was an indicator of who they were if they described it in terms of their experience with the possession rather than the physical quality of the item itself.
Experiences give more info — The value of experiences to understand went beyond themselves. Participants in the study  felt that knowing what another person had experienced would give them more information and insight into who they really are than knowing what they bought.
Experience = more satisfaction — And lastly, the researchers conclude that it is because people cling to the memory of important experiences that makes them more satisfied with experiences compared to possessions.
Thinking about the results of this research the following ideas come to mind:
  • If you are marketing a product, put emphasis on what experiences you will have with it rather than what it will look like/feel like/ be like to own it.
  • If you are collecting purchasing info about target clients (as has been in the news lately with questions about privacy) you’d be better off to know what people’s purchases imply about the experiences they are having rather than just inferring from the data what they own.
  • The user experience of a product is more important than we think. It’s not just the idea that the product should be easy to use/ interesting. The EXPERIENCE part of user experience is not just a fancy word to use. People remember and evaluate, and even cherish experiences, even with technology.
  • Customers may resonate more with a brand if they can get a sense of what the organization has DONE, not just what products or services they sell.
What do you think? What are the implications that we define sense of self through experience more than possessions?
And if you like to read the research:
Carter, Travis J.;Gilovich, Thomas
I Am What I Do, Not What I Have: The Differential Centrality of Experiential and Material Purchases to the Self.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Feb 27 , 2012,  doi: 10.1037/a0027407
Carter, Travis J.; Gilovich, Thomas. The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010; 98 (1): 146 DOI:10.1037/a0017145
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12 Replies to “Experiences vs. Possessions: You Are What You've Done, Not What You Own”

  1. Very interesting. I know that there were times I took a vacation I wasn’t sure I could afford but later was very glad I did so. As the song says, “They can’t take that away from me.”

  2. That’s a really interesting concept.

    I wonder how it translates to something where there’s a service (experience) which installs/fits something in your home (the product)?

    For example, if an enjoyable installation experience creates a bit of a halo effect around the product you’re left with, making you regard it more highly if you enjoyed the fitting experience? And how long that halo effect lasts before you stop remembering the fitting and start critically assessing the product on its own merit?

    Thanks for a thought provoking article :)

  3. I was surprised by this post. This topic has been done before, but your bullets are particularly thought provoking. I will say one thing however, I think you’re starting with the assumption that buying/consuming is about improving happiness. While that’s true for many consumer decisions, there’s a wide swath of items for which it isn’t. I don’t buy Colgate toothpaste to put a smile on my face (well, bad example). But you’re right. I won’t buy it again if I have a bad experience with it.

  4. I think we all know, unconsciously, that possessions are a form of slavery. This is why everyone I know, including my self, will raise hands and smile while declaring a “Road Trip!”.

    But note that the same can be said when comparing *experiences* at many work places. They too can often lack any positive benefit or emotions. Therefore I don’t believe it’s solely a possessions vs. experiences comparison, but rather a slavery vs. freedom comparison.

    The result, in my mind, is to make sure your product creates more freedoms. It may be a subtle difference, but take a look at one of the points made:

    * If you are marketing a product, put emphasis on what experiences you will have with it rather than what it will look like/feel like/ be like to own it.

    My take: Instead putting emphasis on what kind of experience the user might have, ask yourself if they even need to do what ever it is you’re trying to make them do, or how you can create more freedoms within your solution. Only then should you think about how to make the experience more pleasant.

  5. We keep rediscovering the same old things over and over and over again, don’t we?

    The concept can be tracked back at least to classical Greek philosophy, can be certainly found in some religions, all the way through the ages to the 70s (for example see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Have_or_to_Be%3F) and finally came to us.

    Let me say at this point that Susan is one of the few who is always professional and provides at least the main references, in good science etiquette. And that’s why she is an absolutely favourite of mine. That is also why I decided to propose this considerations here, where expect to find many like minded people, and cogent answers.

    So here it is: reading this made me wonder, why do people cyclically forget what, especially as an academic community, we have known over and over again?

    This relabelling of old stuff is especially common in our field, sometimes in good faith, to update concepts to the modern day, more often just as a marketing device.

    From cloud computing to agile, to tablets, the same concepts have been around for decades, sometimes for centuries. It always takes some weasel marketer or consultant to notice, and just repackage some ideas, rename them, and then proceed to sell stale news for fresh cash.

    From ‘popular science’ books to blogs to TED talks, very seldom the true origins of those ‘new’ ideas are acknowledged.

    How ironic that they don’t know that cash doesn’t make one happy ;)

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