Matt posted earlier today about someone who gains utility from thinking about buying something even if they never actually buy it. There’s actually quite a lot of work that’s been done on utility gained from anticipation. George Loewenstein’s 1987 paper reports a study in which people were willing to pay more for a kiss they received in three days than they would be willing to pay for the same kiss today. They gained pleasure simply from thinking about the kiss and anticipating how good it would be. I don’t think the students in the study ever actually got the kiss so he doesn’t mention whether it lived up to expectations. Interestingly, this idea of utility from anticipation only seems to hold over non-monetary items. Nobody values receiving $1000 in three days more than $1000 today: monetary gains are discounted as one would normally expect.
Of course, if you get benefits from anticipation then that might affect your consumption of ‘real’ items. Botond Koszegi has a working paper in which he models a ‘personal equilibrium’ which describes the interaction between anticipated and actual consumption. Two phenomena which he identifies as arising from his model are self-fulfilling expectations and behaviours which depends upon unchosen alternatives. Both of these are commonly observed: the second in particular is often referred to by psychologists as a criticism of the standard economic model of consumer choice. We value consumption differently depending upon the proximate reference points: for instance, if you go on a fantastic holiday then even if the next holiday is good it is a disappointment. If incorporation of anticipation into our models of behaviour can make them that much more representative of reality then it’s certainly worth thinking about.