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The gift of giving yourself

W. P. Carey professor pens research paper that demonstrates experiences eclipse material possessions

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July 01, 2021

A book, a golf club, flowers or a gift card to a favorite restaurant are nice things to honor someone on their birthday or a special occasion, but it turns out what people really yearn for are experiences to share with their loved ones.

Many researchers are consistently finding one result: Purchasing an experience yields greater happiness for consumers than just buying a material possession.

This is known as “the experiential advantage.”

Evan Weingarten, an assistant professor at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business in the Department of Marketing, knows a lot about the subject. He recently co-authored a research paper titled “Re-examining the Experiential Advantage in Consumption: A Meta-Analysis and Review,” which looks at synthesizingJoseph Goodman at Ohio State University is co-author on the paper. the quantitative results from a body of literature to develop a model of consumer happiness and well-being based on psychological needs.

ASU Now recently spoke to Weingarten about the desire to give experiences instead of gifts in a post-COVID-19 world.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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Evan Weingarten

Question: What led you to write this paper?

Answer: I went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania; there was another researcher there, Cindy Chan, who was also working on this question of experiences versus material possessions. … I became interested in it over time. … It was many years of seeing people work on these kinds of ideas in various ways. I felt someone should unify this literature and all these ideas in one space and put it all together.

Q: What were some of your findings?

A: One result I think many probably resonate with is the idea that the biggest driver of why people are enjoying experiences more than material possessions is that experiences tend to be more social. There's some social utility that's gained from them that might not be reflected in material possessions.

To be clear about these two things, experiences tend to be different intangible things that expand over time that you lived through, whereas material possessions are more tangible and can be acquired to be owned or in your possession. These two things vary in a lot of different features and elements. Some people did say that experience is a part of who they are, their identity. One thing that we highlighted in this paper is that regardless of what exactly the outcome is, it looks like there's a strong kind of social utility supported to experiences relative to material possessions.

Q: You say that experiences trump material possessions, but are there any benefits to material things themselves?

A: There are a lot of status symbols that are material possessions, like the people who have a fancy car in their driveway, or they have that Tesla, or they have the Lamborghini, that are trying to signal status pretty clearly. Whereas except for Instagram posts, if I go on a cruise, that’s not openly out there to celebrate as I'm walking around, it might be a bit harder in some cases for me to show off my experiences in the same way. It's changed a bit because of social media, but material possessions also have this sense of longevity. They're more solid. You can own them. They're tangible, whereas experiences, you know, once they're over, they’re over. … (And) experiences could have greater variance or variability in their enjoyment. 

Q: Are the two comparable?

A: There is a possibility that there are gains from experiences, but there are also gains from materials in some ways. So it's not the case necessarily that materials are worse for happiness than good; material and experiential aren't necessarily opposites. There might be offerings out there in the marketplace that are both material and experiential.

Q: Have you ever put this theory to the test in terms of experience over material?

A: I did very recently — my dad turned 70 last month. I was finishing up teaching in the lead up to it. I didn't know how much free time I had, and I looked around and thought, “Hey, here's a set of golf clubs that I think he would enjoy,” because he likes to golf nowadays in Florida. Then I spoke to my mom, who suggested a visit, spoke to my partner, and said, “Look, we can do better than this for his 70th birthday. And I flew to Florida as a surprise to him. We got to spend the entire weekend together because his birthday was on a Friday. So we got Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and then Monday together instead of just buying him the material thing that might sit in his garage for the next couple of years until I accidentally buy him another one. We had a wonderful experience together. The memory of it is pretty special, especially coming out of COVID-19 where for the past year or so, there haven't been as many experiences in the same way that we kind of expect them to be.

For the past year, social utility from experiences was tricky because there're only so many things you could do safely. Now what you're seeing out there, especially with the Suns doing well in the playoffs, is that people are like, “Yeah, let's go out to a restaurant, let's go to a bar. Let's go to your house and watch these things.” These are experiences with other people that you can share with your friends and get excited about. A lot of us are loving this ability to have a social experience in a way that might not have been there in the past year.

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