Don’t Tell Me: Knowing How Long Unpleasantness Will Last Makes It Worse

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People are notoriously bad at predicting their future emotional state. Intuitively, for instance, we think that knowing beforehand how long an unpleasant experience will last — waiting on a crowded subway platform or having dinner with the in-laws — will make it easier to swallow. Turns out, in fact, the opposite is true.

Likewise, rather than reducing the pleasure of an enjoyable experience, knowing in advance when it will end actually intensifies people’s satisfaction, a new study finds.

“Intuitively, it seems likely that duration knowledge would weaken affective experiences because during a pleasurable experience, anticipating its end is generally unpleasant and should reduce the fun of the ongoing experience. Conversely, one might expect that anticipating the relief at the end of a bad experience would render it less negative,” the study authors, Min Zhao and Claire I. Tsai, each an assistant professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, write.

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But in a series of experiments, Zhao and Tsai demonstrated the reverse. In one field study, they told 83 middle-school students at a Taiwanese “cram school” — an after-school program that trains students to meet advanced academic goals — that they would be staying later than their normal three-hour session, for extra study. Some students were told that the late session would run 60 minutes; the others were given no duration information (but likely expected the session to last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, which is how long such extra sessions usually last).

The students were asked to predict how unpleasant they thought their extra study period would be: as expected, those who were told it would last an hour predicted that their experience would be less negative, compared with kids who weren’t given duration information. But when the students rated their actual experience of the late session after it was over, the researchers found the opposite: students who knew when it would end had suffered more.

In subsequent experiments — involving, for instance, pleasant sound clips (John Mayer singing “Bigger than My Body”) versus unpleasant ones (the same song performed by one of the study authors, “who sings abominably”) — researchers found the same counterintuitive results. Knowing how long the pop song would last (30 seconds) increased people’s enjoyment of it, while knowing how long the author’s second-rate cover would go on made listening to it all the more miserable.

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Consistent with previous research, however, people did rate the unpleasant experience as feeling longer than the pleasant one.

How do the authors explain this psychological surprise? One factor may involve something they call “hedonic contrast,” which suggests that you enjoy (or dread) your current situation more when you know something worse (or better) is coming. The authors write:

Experiencing a pleasurable event while simultaneously anticipating a worse future is likely to remind people of ways in which their current circumstances are satisfying, rendering the ongoing experience more enjoyable. Similarly, experiencing an unpleasant event while anticipating a better future is likely to remind people that their current circumstances are dissatisfying, rendering the ongoing experience even more irritating.

Or it could be a matter of attention: past research has shown that when you pay more attention to pain, it hurts more; when you focus on something enjoyable, it gets better. The authors reason that perhaps when people are told when a particular experience will end, they become more mindful of the experience itself.

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A third experiment in Zhao and Tsai’s study supports that theory. When participants were exposed to a pleasant noise (a Mozart piano sonata) versus an unpleasant one (the racket of a vacuum cleaner), there was another factor that interfered with the effect of duration knowledge: an actual countdown to the end. When participants were shown a countdown clock on a computer screen, it reduced the pleasure taken from Mozart but also reduced people’s aversion to the vacuum noise — presumably because their attention had been shifted.

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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