People choose familiar over new when window of opportunity closes - study

A new University of Chicago study suggests that ‘variety is the spice of life’ does not always make us happy.

NEW STUDIES are starting to show that the combination of economic hardship and loneliness is pushing people in Israel and internationally over the edge. (photo credit: CREATIVE COMMONS CC0)
NEW STUDIES are starting to show that the combination of economic hardship and loneliness is pushing people in Israel and internationally over the edge.
(photo credit: CREATIVE COMMONS CC0)

When people believe that they have a limited amount of time left to enjoy something, they tend to prefer the comfort of something familiar and not the excitement of something new, according to research carried out in Illinois.

In eight experiments that included 6,000 participants, Dr. Ed O’Brien and Yuji Katsumata Winet of the University of Chicago’s School of Business examined whether people tend to prefer novel, exciting experiences, such as trying a new restaurant, or familiar ones like returning to an old favorite. They also studied whether those preferences shifted with the amount of time people think they have left to enjoy similar experiences.

The research was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology under the title “Ending on a Familiar Note: Perceived Endings Motivate Repeat Consumption.”

Previous research found that, on average, people tend to opt for novel and exciting experiences over familiar ones. But the Chicago team suspected that “perceived endings” might affect those choices by nudging people to return to a meaningful old favorite.

Cars cause streaks of lights as they drive past a red light camera in downtown Chicago (credit: JIM YOUNG / REUTERS)Cars cause streaks of lights as they drive past a red light camera in downtown Chicago (credit: JIM YOUNG / REUTERS)

Going for something new and exciting over the familiar and reliable

In the first experiment, the researchers asked 500 online participants and 663 college and business school students to read hypothetical scenarios in which they were given the choice between a new experience or a familiar, cherished one such as reading a new novel versus rereading an old favorite or visiting a new city vs. revisiting a city they love.

Half of the participants were asked just to make the choice, while the other half were instructed to imagine that it was the last chance that they would have for a while to travel or read a novel. Overall,  participants in the “endings” groups were more likely to choose familiar activities compared with participants in the control groups.

In the next set of experiments, the researchers moved beyond hypothetical questions to explore people’s behavior in lab and real-life settings.

In one, for example, participants were told they would be given a gift card to a restaurant and that the gift card needed to be used in the next month. Then, half the participants were told to reflect on how few opportunities they would have for going to restaurants in the next month and specific things that might prevent them from going.

Finally, participants were asked whether they would prefer a gift card to a restaurant they’d visited before or one that was new to them. Overall, 67% of the participants in the “endings” condition preferred a gift certificate to a familiar restaurant, compared with just 48% of those in the control condition.

Finally, the researchers explored why perceived endings seemed to push participants toward familiar things. They concluded that it was not just because the familiar experiences were a safe bet that participants knew they would enjoy, but also because they were more likely to find those familiar things personally meaningful.

“Our findings unveil nuance to what people really mean by ending on a high note,” said Winet. “Endings tend to prompt people to think about what’s personally meaningful to them. People like ending things on a meaningful note as it provides psychological closure, and in most cases old favorites tend to be more meaningful than exciting novelty.”

“The research is especially interesting because, on the surface, it runs counter to the idea of the bucket list, whereby people tend to pursue novelty – things they’ve never done but have always wanted to do – as they approach the end of life,” O’Brien added. “Here we find that, at least in these more everyday ending contexts, people actually do the opposite. They want to end on a high note by ending on a familiar note.”

The researchers noted that the findings could help people to structure their time better to maximize their enjoyment of experiences, for example by visiting an old favorite attraction on the last rather than the first day of a vacation. Retailers and marketers, too, could take advantage of the findings: A café slated to close for a while for renovations might put more of its favorite dishes on the renewed menu rather than try new items for sale.

The researchers also suggested that such psychological framings could be useful for addressing larger societal problems. “Nudging people toward repeat consumption by emphasizing endings and last chances could subtly encourage sustainable consumption by curbing the waste that necessarily accumulates from perpetual novelty-seeking,” Winet concluded.