Stimulus interruptus

A patient, when offered the opportunity to take a break midway through a painful medical procedure will often accept the offer. However, a spa client offered the chance to take a short break during a relaxing massage session will typically refuse. In each case, the people on the receiving end of these experiences intuitively believe that they are improving their happiness with their choices. But do they?Two marketing professors, Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis* at New York University have wrestled with precisely this question.

It is well known that people have an incredible ability to adapt to changing environments; we get used to bad as well as good situations surprisingly quickly. This means that the pain and pleasure of a new experience is perceived the most strongly at the outset. With repeated exposure, however, our perception of the stimulus diminishes. The effect of a break is to allow our adaptation level – that level of stimulus that is no longer actively perceived – to drift back to baseline levels.

During an aversive experience, people obviously welcome a break because they are spared the negative stimulus. However, they cannot really enjoy the break because of the dread associated with the eventual resumption of the experience. And once it does restart, it will again be perceived with its full intensity as the adaptation process has to start all over again. The opposite is true for pleasurable experiences. Of course, the interruption is inconvenient as the level of positive stimulus during the break is lower. However the advantage is that people can savour the prospect of the resumption and, when it does restart, they perceive the pleasure with its full intensity.

Thus, to maximise happiness using breaks, we must choose precisely the opposite of what is suggested by our intuition. This is important to know not only for organising our own tasks but also in making plans for others.

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* Interrupted Consumption: Adaptation and the Disruption of Hedonic Experience – Leif D. Nelson and Tom Meyvis, Journal of Marketing Research, Vol.45, pp.654-664, December 2008

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