small change toward a rich life

Miswanting, and two strategies to counter it

As part of my attempt to downsize our life, I’m culling my collection of clothes and shoes. As I ransack my closet and dresser drawers, I’m struck by the occasional item that was a complete misfire. There aren’t many of them, because I know myself pretty well, but I’ve run across a few things that I bought years ago and have never worn.

What happened there? In 2000, a couple of psychology researchers published an influential paper that explained exactly how that happens, and put a name on it: miswanting.

One of those researchers, Daniel Gilbert, is one of my favorite non-fiction writers ever. Few academic researchers are also great at writing, but Gilbert is a rare exception. Here’s his explanation of ‘miswanting’:

gourmet cheeseburger with friesSometimes we get what we say we want and feel entirely unhappy about it. We order a cheeseburger only to find that it looks and smells precisely as cheeseburgers always look and smell, and despite that fact, we have absolutely no interest in eating it. We are perplexed and embarrassed by such mistakes and can only offer cunning explanations such as, “I guess I didn’t really want a cheeseburger after all.” Dining companions often consider such accounts inadequate.

Not your usual dry academic prose, eh?

Gilbert and his co-researcher Tim Wilson go on to describe the three kinds of situation that lead to a miswant: imagining the wrong event, using the wrong theory, and misinterpreting feelings.

Imagining the wrong event

McDonald's cheeseburgerSometimes your information about a purchase is inaccurate or incomplete. If you’ve ever bought clothes online or from catalogs, you know how this goes. The fabric is scratchy, the cut makes you look fat, or the color is a completely different shade than the one on your laptop. Or you imagine the best cheeseburger you can remember, and only belatedly realize that the McDonald’s version is not going to measure up. As Gilbert says, “The events we imagine when we are in the midst of a really good want are not precisely the events we experience when we are at the tail end of a really disappointing get.”

Using the wrong theory

olive velvet blazerSpecifically, this refers to our mistaken theories about ourselves — who we are now, or who we will be in the future. For example, I have an olive green velvet blazer in my closet that I’ve worn exactly once. The color looks great on me, and the cut is really sharp. But the polyester lining of the blazer is hot and uncomfortable, compared with the other clothes I have. I don’t own the sorts of shirts and shoes that would coordinate with a blazer like that, and since buying it I have not made a real effort to acquire them. I thought I wanted to be the kind of person who would wear a snappy velvet blazer, but the reality is that I am unwilling to sacrifice comfort for looks. And after several years of not-wearing the blazer I am forced to confront the truth that although I can appreciate that kind of style, I’m not motivated over the long term to pursue it for myself.

Misinterpreting feelings

happy girl trying on dressEmotions have a spillover effect that we are often unconscious of. If you’re out shopping and decide that you love a particular dress, that emotion likely has as much to do with the sunny weather, some recent good news, or a joke your friend just made as it has to do with the dress.

Humans, it turns out, are actually pretty bad at knowing why we feel the way we do at any given moment.

•   •   •

Buying something on the basis of a miswant means wasted money and a useless object cluttering up your life. It usually means regret and maybe even guilt. So how do we keep ourselves from suffering those consequences?

Here are the two strategies that work for me.

The Wait-and-See Strategy

When you have the urge to buy something, walk away. Or bookmark it and close the browser. Reconsider it several times over the next couple of weeks (if a moderate purchase) or couple of months (if a major one). Are you just as excited about it later as you were on the first day?

monthly calendar with marked-off daysA single instance of want is much more likely to misfire than multiple instances of wanting the same thing, or sustained wanting over a period of time. Random unrelated emotions will skew your preferences, but not consistently in the same direction. If you like a thing (on a sunny day shopping with your best friend after your boss just praised your work on a big project) and you still like it a week later (by yourself in the rain after being passed up for a promotion), you probably have a winner.

For extra bonus points, use some of that wait time to thoroughly research your proposed purchase and see if, with additional information, you still think it’s a good idea. This helps you combat the kind of miswant caused by inaccurate or incomplete data.

For example, a couple of months ago I wrote about my sudden urge to buy a cherry pitter and a mango splitter, and how I forced myself to wait. I left them at the store, went home and checked Amazon reviews, and by the time I was done reading I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be happy in the long run with either gadget.

I also mentioned that I was still considering a bulk purchase of 15 pounds of Rainier cherries, even though my rational brain knew that even half that was probably too much. But it was the very beginning of cherry season, roughly ten months since my last taste of fresh cherry, and I was consumed with cherry lust. An earlier version of me would have placed an order right then and there. But knowing the dangers of miswanting, I made myself wait.

The very next week after I wrote that post I began getting cherries from my CSA box, and a couple weeks after that they went on sale at one of my usual grocery stores — for a quarter less per pound than the bulk price I had been considering. I suddenly had all the cherries I could eat, and with my cherry craving sated, it was easier to recognize that preservation of large quantities of food has never been my strong suit.

Another miswanted purchase averted through the power of waiting!

The Low-Risk Strategy

Alternatively, you can let yourself buy on impulse, but keep the cost so low that when you do (inevitably) miswant, it’s not a big deal.

Goodwill logo on buildingIn January 2011 I made a quiet resolution to buy no more new clothing. (Underwear and socks are exempted, for what I hope are obvious reasons.) This has coincided with the need to patch several holes in my wardrobe, first due to the loss of a few pounds and then due to substantial time spent in warmer climates. Nevertheless, for the past 19 months, I have spent no more than $7 on any single clothing item, and more often $2-$5.

Which means that when I miswant an item of clothing — and occasionally I still do — the damage is minor. Now if I find that I’ve guessed wrong about whether I will still like that shirt three months from now, or inexplicably misjudged how well those pants fit, I’m only out a few bucks.

As a bonus, I can tell that this practice is going to help me in my quest to keep my possessions streamlined. I’m finding it a truly wrenching experience to make myself get rid of things I spent $30 or $50 on, even after years have passed. Sending that olive green blazer on to its next life is like pulling a tooth. But donating back to Goodwill something that I bought there for $4 in the first place provokes only a minor twinge.

•   •   •

These two strategies have saved me from a lot of buyer’s remorse in the past couple of years. Of course, miswanting can apply to more than just purchase decisions — it affects our major life choices, as well.

But that, my friends, is another post.


3 responses

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  1. Amanda says

    I like Daniel Gilbert too! And these are great strategies. I actually find that the wait-and-see strategy occasionally makes me feel that I put off buying something too long (“wait, why didn’t I get this already?”), but it is extremely effective.

    • Karawynn says

      (Sorry, I got all distracted by tax calculators and missed this comment at first.)

      Did you know Daniel Gilbert was a published science fiction writer before he was a research psychologist? I didn’t, until I was researching this very post. This New York Times feature contains some neat backstory on him.

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