The Why #14: Why did I buy so many pairs of sweatpants?

By Dan Monheit, 05.03.21

Question submitted by Holly, Brighton

To be honest Holly, I don’t see the problem. The eleven pairs of almost identical sweatpants I bought in 2020 are now a key part of the estate my lucky kids will one day inherit.

There’s no question that each purchase seemed like a good idea at the time. Same goes for my wine subscription, my razor subscription, my sock subscription and my online yoga/pilates/meditation subscription. Also my eyebrow ring from 1998 and the Green Day tattoo on the small of my back.

But thats enough about me Holly, let’s talk about you. Why did you buy all of those sweatpants? And why does ‘Today Holly’ seem somewhat less thrilled about it than ‘Lockdown Holly’ who bought them all in the first place?

Projection Bias

Welcome to the Projection Bias, our tendency to assume that our future selves will have the exact same set of tastes, preferences and priorities that our current selves do.

Turns out that the difficulty we have feeling empathy towards others, also (annoyingly) extends to our future selves — a shortcoming that Carnegie Mellon University psychologist George Loewenstein labelled the ‘intrapersonal empathy gap’.

In a series of experiments, Lowenstein contrasted peoples predictions about how much they would be affected by a major life change (moving to a different climate, winning the lottery, becoming a paraplegic), with data from people who had actually experienced those changes.

Lowenstein found that subjects consistently and significantly overestimated the impact that these changes would have on their happiness, in large part because they couldn’t imagine experiencing these changes in any context other than the one they were already in.

If it’s warm outside, we can’t imagine ever not wanting a pool or a convertible.

If we’re starving while we shop, we load up our supermarket trolleys like we’ll be eating for Australia for the next week straight.

If we’ve been working from home in sweats for months on end, it seems unfathomable that we’ll ever slip back into a suit or heels. Better get some more trackies then!

Our lack of foresight can have major consequences, as we fail to appreciate that today’s enthusiasm towards a monthly wine subscription, an overpriced handbag or an edgy neck tattoo, may not be matched by our future selves — who inherit the results of these decisions.

For brands, the Projection Bias provides a golden opportunity to capitalise on motivation in the moment. This could be as simple as offering to book a follow up visit or service immediately after the first, adding recurring payments or bulk buy options, or going pedal to the metal on media when conditions are right. People will make all sorts of decisions — many of them long term — based on the assumption that they’ll always feel exactly as they do, right here, right now.

Behaviourally Yours,

Dan Monheit

Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about the Projection Bias on episode 22 of the Bad Decisions podcast.

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