Blog | Economics

Foraging For Pleasure

. 2 min read

Every day is a journey of discovery. Life is short and every day matters. I just discovered the work of British composer Jonathan Harvey. Purely by accident. After a quick search I found out that he is this week's composer of the week over at BBC Radio 3 and that all programmes are available online for one week after the broadcast. Just my luck.

In (post) modern societies gathering food only takes a short trip to the supermarket. There is no more need to spend several hours a day foraging. People still need to work to earn money, but they also have an increasing amount of leisure time. What do people do with this excess time? They play games, watch television, read books, write blog posts, go jogging, meet with friends IRL or online and so on.

In addition to a hunger for food (and sex) humans appear to have an insatiable hunger for information. And so as their hunger for food is more easily met people have moved from consuming food to consuming concepts.

That is from a recent review paper by Dan Ariely and Michael Norton, Conceptual Consumption, in the Annual Review of Psychology (Vol. 60, pp. 475–99, 2009), that I just discovered. Ariely and Norton argue that much consumption is better understood as different forms of "conceptual consumption" than as "physical consumption". People don't just buy bread or vegetables, they buy organic wholemeal bread or fair trade bananas. The decision to buy fair trade bananas rather than the cheapest on the shelf involves a different concept, that of promoting the livelihood of farmers in developing countries, in addition to the physical product, which is the same in both cases.

Ariely and Norton distinguish three basic concepts that people consume: expectations, goals and memories. I'm not too sure about the expectations and goals, but I like the idea of people consuming memories. In another recent paper the authors, Gal Zauberman, Rebecca Ratner and B. Kyu Kim, discuss the indeed remarkable phenomenon, which will be familiar to most people, that people sometimes choose NOT to repeat an experience even though they value it highly. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that people cherish the memories, which they want to protect for later consumption and don't want to contaminate with new experiences. For example a place you visited years ago may have changed in the intervening period. What's more your experience at the time may have been influenced by the presence of your then partner.

The internet has made it easy to discover something new every day. Just follow some random links. Bookmark some sites that collect links to other sites and visit them at the end of every day or week. But don't waste all your time online. There is so much to discover in the real world, in books, on the street, in nature, in the stories told by friends or random people on the train, in museums and so on.