Memories as Assets: Strategic Memory Protection in Choice over Time

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Memories as Assets: Strategic Memory Protection in Choice over Time GAL ZAUBERMAN REBECCA K. RATNER B. KYU KIM*
We present five studies supporting our strategic memory protection theory. When people make decisions about experiences to consume over time, they treat their memories of previous experiences as assets to be protected. The first two studies demonstrate that people tend to avoid situations that they believe will threaten their ability to retrieve special (rather than merely pleasant) memories. The next three studies demonstrate that people seek to obtain memory pointers to help them cue special memories at a later time when they anticipate interference from subsequent events. These preferences are driven by people’s lay theories about the importance and difficulty of obtaining and retrieving special memories.


esearch on decision making has identified three distinct sources of pleasure or pain that consumers can derive from an experience: the pre-experience utility from anticipation, the utility from the experience itself, and the postexperience utility from memory (Elster and Loewenstein 1992; Kahneman 1994; Loewenstein 1987). Thus, a single event such as a vacation or a special evening out can influence utility first through savoring, then through the unfolding of the experience, and finally through recollection (Elster and Loewenstein 1992). The current work examines the last component, utility from memory. In particular, we focus on how a desire to protect special memories can affect consumers’ choices about what to experience and what items to acquire. The need for individuals to make decisions in the context of existing memories is ubiquitous, ranging from memories of ordinary experiences (e.g., shopping at a particular mall or previous lunches at a given cafeteria) to memories of

*Gal Zauberman is associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (gal@wharton Rebecca K. Ratner is associate professor of marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742 ( B. Kyu Kim is a doctoral student at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104 ( The authors contributed equally to this article. The authors thank Jim Bettman, Wes Hutchinson, and Mara Mather for helpful comments on a previous draft of the article and Swapna Putcha and Angie Skinner for coding the data in study 1. The authors also thank the editor, associate editor, and three reviewers for their helpful comments. John Deighton served as editor and Stephen Nowlis served as associate editor for this article. Electronically published September 11, 2008

more meaningful experiences (e.g., one’s honeymoon, a trek to the Everest base camp, or a particularly special meal with close friends). Whereas memories of mundane experiences help individuals navigate through daily life, memories of extraordinary and meaningful life events have important consequences for self-definition, well-being, and life satisfaction (Keinan and Kivetz 2007; Leboe and Ansons 2006; Singer and Salovey 1993; Tversky and Griffin 2000; Van Boven and Gilovich 2003; Wildschut et al. 2006). We refer to this second category of events as those that are “special,” consistent with the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s primary definition of special as “distinguished by some unusual quality; especially being in some way superior.” Naturally, the specific experiences that a given individual will encode as special are inherently subjective. In the present work, we do not examine the various determinants of an individual’s judgment about what makes an experience special. Instead, we draw from prior research on nostalgia that explores the types of experiences that people want to look back on, as well as the emotional triggers and consequences of engaging in nostalgic thinking (Wildschut et al. 2006). This literature suggests...
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