How mental simulation evokes negative affective misforecasting of hedonic experiences

Gia Nardini (University of Denver, Colorado, USA)
Richard J. Lutz (University of Florida, Florida, USA)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Publication date: 10 September 2018

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the relationship between mental simulation and affective misforecasting of hedonic consumption experiences.

Design/methodology/approach

The authors present a series of lab and field studies that manipulate mental simulation and experience type (ordinary versus extraordinary) and measure affective misforecasting and mindfulness. Data were analyzed using a combination of ANOVA and PROCESS.

Findings

Mental simulation before an experience causes negative affective misforecasting to occur for extraordinary experiences but not ordinary experiences. The authors further show that mindfulness mediates the effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting.

Practical implications

The findings provide insight into how thinking about experiences before consumption affects consumers’ actual engagement with the experience. This paper suggests that, by encouraging consumers to mentally simulate their experiences before consumption, marketers may cause consumers to miss out on enjoying their experiences to the fullest. Instead, marketers may want to maintain some mystique by encouraging consumers to “come see for themselves”.

Originality/value

The authors demonstrate a novel cause of affective misforecasting: mental simulation before the experience and provide initial evidence in support of a novel psychological process explanation (i.e. mindfulness) for the effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting.

Keywords

Citation

Nardini, G. and Lutz, R. (2018), "How mental simulation evokes negative affective misforecasting of hedonic experiences", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 35 No. 6, pp. 633-643. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCM-07-2017-2291

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Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best’, and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called”.– A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting.” ― Andy Warhol

In many situations, consumers have the opportunity to mentally simulate consuming a product or experience before actually consuming it. For example, after choosing a special food item from a menu at a coveted restaurant, consumers must wait for the food to be served, and they may anticipate what that food will taste like while they wait. Similarly, consumers often purchase experiences, such as cruises, well in advance. During the time between choice/purchase and actual consumption, consumers may imagine their experience, search for pictures on the internet and/or discuss the upcoming experience with friends – all of which are examples of mentally simulating an upcoming experience.

Although some research suggests that such mental simulation positively affects consumers’ affective responses to experiences (i.e. the emotions and feelings that consumers report having; Coary and Poor, 2016; Nowlis et al., 2004), other research suggests the opposite (Chan and Mukhopadhyay, 2010). Further, marketers appear to implicitly accept Andy Warhol’s view (above) that such mental simulation augments experiential consumption. Advertisements for many experiential offerings encourage people to “picture it now” and “imagine yourself here”. Travel planning websites and internet image searches further facilitate anticipation of these experiences. But, how does mental simulation of an upcoming experience affect consumers’ responses to the experience itself? Might too much mental simulation actually have a negative effect, as Winnie the Pooh (above) believes?

We propose that, in certain situations, mentally simulating an experience results in a negative misforecast of positive affect (Pollai et al., 2010); that is, people receive less enjoyment from the experience than they had forecast. We further argue that this effect is because of a loss of focus on the present moment during the actual experience (i.e. less mindful processing). Specifically, as people constantly compare the actual experience to that which they have forecast, they are less focused on the present moment, thereby reducing the positive affect received from the experience. Two recent streams of research, affective misforecasting (Pollai et al., 2010) and mental simulation (Larson et al., 2014), hold promise for answering the question of when mental simulation enhances versus diminishes positive affective responses to a hedonic consumption experience. In this research, we bridge the two literatures to provide greater insight and then extend them by introducing the concept of mindful processing (Brown and Ryan, 2003) to create a unified account of the impact of mental simulation on affective misforecasting.

We extend affective misforecasting to another domain by arguing that mental simulation causes affective misforecasting by influencing how people process a consumption experience. Specifically, we argue that mental simulation results in less mindful processing of the actual consumption experience. For example, when people plan vacations, they often mentally simulate the experience as they view pictures and discuss the trip with friends. As such, this mental simulation likely creates a concrete standard by which the actual experience can be evaluated. This in turn may cause an individual to compare the experience to their mental model in the moment. As a consequence, people may be less mindful during an experience when they mentally simulate it beforehand. Although the act of mental simulation may offer positive utility in and of itself (e.g. the positive utility derived from savoring an upcoming experience; Loewenstein, 1987), the effect of mental simulation on the positive affect derived from the experience may be negative.

Our research makes three important contributions to the literature. First, we propose a novel cause of affective misforecasting: mental simulation before the experience. Second, we explore a moderator, how ordinary versus extraordinary the experience is, that determines the extent to which mental simulation influences affective misforecasting of experiences. Third, we provide initial evidence in support of a novel psychological process explanation (i.e. mindfulness) for the effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting.

Theoretical development

Affective misforecasting

Affective misforecasting refers to people’s tendency to overestimate or underestimate their affective responses to future events (Wilson and Gilbert, 2005). Consumers typically make purchase decisions by predicting how that purchase will make them feel in the future (Simonson, 1990; Loewenstein and Schkade, 1999). For example, the decision to buy tickets to Disney World is often influenced by how much pleasure the buyer predicts the trip will bring. Yet consumers are often incorrect, predicting greater or longer-lasting affective responses from that Disney World trip than will actually be the case. Recent findings demonstrate that people misforecast the direction (feeling better or worse than predicted), duration (length of time) and magnitude (size of the deviation) of their future affective responses (Gilbert et al., 1998; Patrick et al., 2007).

Affective misforecasting is attributable to a variety of factors. Focalism, or the tendency to neglect non-focal events (Wilson et al., 2000), is one cause. For example, football fans focused too much on the loss of a game when predicting how long they would feel upset, as they failed to realize that the (non-focal) events of daily life would mitigate their negative emotions (Gilbert et al., 1998). Affective misforecasting is also caused by incorrect lay theories of well-being, such as believing that greater happiness can be achieved by earning 10 per cent more in income (Gilbert et al., 1998; Loewenstein and Schkade, 1999). Contributing to this body of work, we propose that another cause of affective misforecasting is mental simulation before the experience.

Traditionally, research investigating affective forecasts asks participants to predict their response to some hypothetical future event (Gilbert et al., 1998) or manipulated the quality of available information to influence affective forecasts (Patrick et al., 2007). For example, Gilbert et al. (1998) asked assistant professors how happy they would be a few years after having received or failing to receive tenure. Patrick et al. (2007) gave participants product information that was neutral, negatively biased or positively biased and measured participants’ degree of affective misforecasts in the various conditions. We believe that affective misforecasts can happen naturally as people mentally simulate upcoming events. As such, we extend the work on affective forecasting by demonstrating individuals’ natural inclination to misforecast affective responses to hedonic experiences when they mentally simulate those experiences.

Importantly, affective misforecasting is conceptually distinct from expectancy disconfirmation. Although both processes involve misprediction, expectancy disconfirmation involves predictions about product performance or specific attributes, thereby focusing on the cognitive elements of product evaluation (Oliver, 1993; Patrick et al., 2007). Conversely, affective misforecasting involves predictions regarding the affective experience brought about by consumption (Patrick et al., 2007). Therefore, affective misforecasting entails a different form of misprediction that is not captured by the expectancy disconfirmation process.

Mental simulation

Mental simulation refers to the imagination and anticipation of experiences before they actually occur (Larson et al., 2014; Xie et al., 2016). Prior research has demonstrated that mental simulation enhances persuasion in advertisements (Escalas, 2004; Krishna and Schwarz, 2014), which heightens purchase intentions (Elder and Krishna, 2011) and encourages new product adoption by reducing uncertainty (Castaño et al., 2008). However, less is known about how mental simulation may affect the actual experiences that consumers have with products and services. A small stream of research suggests that mental simulation can cause either an increase or a decrease in positive affective responses to a subsequent experience (Nowlis et al., 2004; Larson et al., 2014; Chan and Mukhopadhyay, 2010).

One stream of research (Coary and Poor, 2016; Loewenstein, 1987; Nowlis et al., 2004) suggests that mental simulation increases the enjoyment of a product or experience when it is actually consumed. This research focuses on the utility derived from anticipation. People derive positive utility from the anticipation of future positive experiences (“savoring”) (Loewenstein, 1987), leading them to prefer to wait for positive experiences as opposed to having those experiences immediately. For example, when given the choice, people preferred to wait three days for a kiss from a celebrity rather than get the kiss immediately (Loewenstein, 1987). Although Loewenstein (1987) investigated the utility of savoring itself and not the effect of savoring on consumption enjoyment, other research has found similar effects for actual consumption enjoyment. Specifically, a delay between choice and consumption increased reported anticipation and subsequent enjoyment of a Hershey’s chocolate because of increased mental simulation during the delay (Nowlis et al., 2004). Participants in their studies chose one of two Hershey’s chocolates and then, depending on condition, either completed filler studies before eating the chocolate or ate the chocolate immediately. Those who completed filler studies reported greater visualization and anticipation before eating the chocolate, and greater actual enjoyment than those who ate the chocolate immediately (Nowlis et al., 2004). Thus, these results suggest that both participants’ anticipation and subsequent enjoyment were heightened by mental simulation.

Another stream of research suggests that mental simulation decreases enjoyment (Larson et al., 2014). Specifically, Larson et al. (2014) showed that satiation (i.e. lower enjoyment) can result from repeated mental simulations of future consumption; they found that people enjoyed actually eating a salty snack less after first viewing 60 pictures of salty snacks compared to viewing only 20 pictures of salty snacks or pictures of sweet snacks. Other research has found that while anticipated enjoyment was highest after a one-week delay, actual enjoyment of a European chocolate was lowest (Chan and Mukhopadhyay, 2010). Chan and Mukhopadhyay (2010) did not measure mental simulation; however, their findings suggest that participants’ anticipation resulted in negative misforecasts of the amount of enjoyment they would receive from eating the European chocolate. To better understand this seeming contradiction in the literature, we explore the role of processing style and the type of experience in causing positive versus negative affective misforecasts.

Mindfulness and extraordinary experiences

Mindfulness is defined as the state of being attentive to, aware of and accepting of what is taking place in the present (Brown and Ryan, 2003). Further, mindfulness is likely to occur naturally during volitional behaviors that align with a person’s values and interests (Brown et al., 2007). Natural occurrences of mindfulness are associated with a reduction of unrelated thoughts and distractions (Brown et al., 2007); clearer, more vivid and more intense experiences (Brown and Ryan, 2003); and higher positive affect and lower negative affect (Brown and Ryan, 2003). Brown and Ryan (2003) further argue that state and trait mindfulness may directly enhance well-being through their association with higher quality moment-to-moment experiences.

One of the primary components of mindfulness, in addition to being focused on the present moment, entails being accepting and non-evaluative (Brown and Ryan, 2003; Langer, 2009). Langer (2009) draws an important distinction between “evaluating” and being “discriminating” during an experience. Mindful individuals are seen as discriminating in that they are attentive to and cognizant of details in the situation. However, they do not evaluate the details; they simply accept them for what they are (Brown et al., 2007; Langer, 2009). In contrast, those experiencing a situation less mindfully are more likely to attach evaluations to various aspects of the experience. Thus, mindfulness involves the quality of attention rather than the amount of attention paid (Bishop et al., 2004).

Often evaluations associated with experiences are schema-driven and are retrieved from memory, consequently with less attention to the immediate context (Alba and Hasher, 1983; Langer, 2009). Mental simulation enhances and develops people’s schemas for the upcoming experience that govern how people perceive and respond to it. As consumers develop schemas via mental simulation, perhaps stimulated by vivid pictures and descriptive language, they will tend to perceive the experience in a more schema-driven and less mindful manner (Langer, 2009). When people are less mindful during an experience, they tend to enjoy it less (Brown and Ryan, 2003). Thus, the effect of mental simulation on the positive affective responses to an experience may be negative because of its deleterious impact on mindful processing of the experience. Therefore, more negative affective misforecasts should follow from reduced mindful processing of the actual experience (See Figure 1 below).

Importantly, mental simulation should negatively affect affective misforecasting for only those experiences during which mindfulness is likely to occur naturally. Mindfulness should be more common during extraordinary experiences, given that people likely choose these experiences volitionally and find them inherently interesting [i.e. the antecedents for naturally occurring mindfulness (Brown and Ryan, 2003)]. Extraordinary experiences are uncommon, infrequent and go beyond the realm of everyday life; ordinary experiences, conversely, are common, frequent and within the realm of everyday life (Bhattacharjee and Mogilner, 2014). Extraordinary experiences are unique in that they are a break from the norm, which should inspire people to anticipate and mentally simulate these special events. For example, although both Nowlis et al. (2004) and Chan and Mukhopadhyay (2010) used chocolate as a stimulus to investigate the effect of mental simulation on anticipation and actual enjoyment, the chocolates differed significantly. Specifically, Nowlis et al. (2004) used an “ordinary” chocolate (Hershey’s), whereas Chan and Mukhopadhyay (2010) used a more “extraordinary” one (an unknown European chocolate). Thus, mental simulation may result in affective misforecasting for tasting an extraordinary chocolate during which mindfulness is likely to occur naturally, but not for tasting an ordinary chocolate during which mindfulness is not likely to occur. We test the type of experience as a possible moderator in Study 3:

H1.

Mental simulation prior to an experience is associated with greater negative affective misforecasting of that experience for extraordinary experiences, but not ordinary experiences.

H2.

Mental simulation causes people to become less mindful during experiential consumption.

H3.

The effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting is mediated by less mindful processing.

We begin by testing whether mental simulation is indeed a cause of affective misforecasting in one field and two lab studies. Then, we investigate the underlying process and experience type as a moderator.

Pilot study: Investigating mental simulation and affective misforecasting in the field

The purpose of the pilot study is to provide preliminary evidence of the effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting (H1) of an extraordinary experience in a natural setting.

Participants and design

In total, 61 college students with and without plans for their Spring Break participated in this study for extra credit. Students who have plans for Spring Break often engage in activities that are uncommon, infrequent and beyond the realm of everyday life. Thus, Spring Break afforded us the opportunity to conduct a field study involving extraordinary experiences. Participants filled out two surveys about their Spring Break plans, one the week before and one the week after Spring Break. In the survey before Spring Break, participants indicated whether they had plans or not, and their answers (i.e. whether participants responded yes or no) served as our independent variable. Participants also indicated how long they had planned their holiday (less than one week – three or more months).

Procedure

We measured affective forecasting in two steps. First, participants forecast how their Spring Break would make them feel by responding to nine seven-point scales (i.e. happy, calm, excited, joyful, cheerful, delighted, pleased, sad and bored) which were taken from prior research investigating affective misforecasting (Patrick et al., 2007). After their Spring Break, participants responded to the same measures. The nine items were summed to create indices of forecast affect (α = 0.89) and experienced affect (α = 0.92), respectively. Finally, participants indicated the extent to which they mentally simulated their Spring Break before the break occurred, using four seven-point measures from Larson et al. (2014) (Appendix).

Results

The sample was somewhat skewed, as 43 participants reported having plans for Spring Break, while only 18 reported not having plans. Further, 8 of the 43 students who indicated that they had Spring Break plans reported planning for less than one week and one of the 18 students who indicated they did not have plans reported planning for about a month; therefore, length of prior planning served as a covariate to control for this variable.

Mental simulation

As predicted, participants who had plans for Spring Break mentally simulated their breaks to a greater extent (M = 4.69) than did participants who did not have plans (M = 3.48, F(1, 58) = 4.27, p = 0.043).

Affective misforecasting

Following Patrick et al. (2007), we assessed the degree of affective misforecasting (AMF) by first subtracting participants’ forecast affect from their experienced affect and then comparing the resultant AMF scores between the two conditions. As predicted, participants who had plans for Spring Break forecast greater positive affect than was experienced (M = −2.02), whereas participants who did not have plans forecasted less positive affect than was experienced (M = 1.05). The difference between the two groups’ AMF scores was statistically significant (F(1, 58) = 5.88, p = 0.018), indicating that mentally simulating the upcoming Spring Break vacation led to negative affective misforecasting.

Mediation

As a final test, we assessed the extent to which mental simulation mediated the effect of having spring break plans on affective misforecasting. A bootstrapping analysis (Hayes, 2012), using 5000 samples and a 95 per cent confidence interval (in brackets), indicated that, as predicted, the indirect effect of having plans for spring break on affective misforecasting was mediated by mental simulation (ab = 1.14, [0.007, 3.67]). When mental simulation was included in the model, the direct effect of having plans on affective misforecasting was no longer significant (ab = 4.41, [−0.24, 9.07]).

Discussion

The pilot study demonstrates our basic effect in a real-world context. Surveying students regarding their plans for Spring Break, we found that those who had plans (a) mentally simulated their breaks more and (b) reported greater negative affective misforecasting than those who did not have plans. Further, we found that mental simulation mediated the effect of having plans on affective misforecasting. Although we did not measure mindfulness in this study, we believe that participants who mentally simulated their Spring Break were subsequently less focused on the moment during their breaks as they compared their actual experience to that which they had mentally simulated. Our remaining studies will investigate the underlying process. The data from this field study are less controlled than data collected from a lab, limiting the inferences that can be drawn from them. However, this study provides important real-world evidence of the negative effect that mental simulation can have on affective misforecasting. With initial support from the field, we next test our hypothesis in more controlled settings.

Study 1: Effect of mental simulation of a virtual tour experience

Study 1 investigates H1 using a virtual tour of an extraordinary experience: Machu Picchu, which is an uncommon and relatively unfamiliar destination to our participants. Before the tour, participants were shown still pictures of the destination or pictures of food, such as appetizers, entrees and desserts, associated with that destination. We reasoned that participants would be more likely to mentally simulate the extraordinary destination when viewing pictures of the destination itself than when viewing pictures of food, and that this mental simulation would result in negative affective misforecasting.

Participants and design

In all, 74 students participated in this study for extra credit. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two (destination pictures versus food pictures) between-subjects conditions. All participants were told that they would be going on a virtual tour of Machu Picchu. In the “mental simulation” condition, participants saw 10 pictures of Machu Picchu before the virtual tour. In the “no mental simulation” condition, participants saw 10 pictures of food common in the Machu Picchu region before the virtual tour. The food pictures were pretested to be neutral and served as a control to hold exposure time constant across both conditions (see Appendix pretest results and the virtual tour).

Procedure

We measured affective forecasting in a similar manner as the pilot study. First, after seeing the pictures, all participants forecast how the virtual tour would make them feel by responding to the nine affect measures from the pilot study. After going on the four-minute virtual tour, participants responded to the same nine measures. Finally, using the same measures as in the pilot study, participants indicated the extent to which they mentally simulated the Machu Picchu virtual tour experience while viewing the pictures that preceded the tour.

Results

Mental simulation. As predicted, participants who viewed pictures of Machu Picchu mentally simulated the experience to a greater extent (M = 5.01) than did participants who viewed food pictures (M = 3.71, t(68.9) = −3.46, p = 0.001).

Affective misforecasting. Also as predicted, participants viewing pictures of Machu Picchu forecasted greater positive affect than was experienced (M = −1.57), whereas participants viewing neutral pictures of food forecasted less positive affect than was experienced (M = 2.32). The difference between the two groups’ AMF scores was statistically significant (t(72) = 2.30, p = 0.024).

Discussion

This study replicates the negative effect that mental simulation can have on affective forecasting in a more controlled setting. Seeing related pictures of a virtual tour experience before taking the tour resulted in greater mental simulation of the tour, but less positive affect received from the tour than was forecast. When participants saw unrelated pictures, they actually experienced more positive affect than they forecast. Our results suggest that participants viewing pictures of the destination created a stronger mental image of the experience than did participants viewing pictures of food. That is, seeing only food pictures prevented participants from envisioning what the experience would truly be like.

Study 2: Effect of mental simulation on a food tasting experience

In Study 2, we sought to test our propositions using a real consumption experience in a lab setting. Thus, we had participants engage in a food tasting. We ensured that the food tasting was more extraordinary than ordinary by choosing a food item that was unfamiliar for most participants: baked cinnamon apple snack sticks. A manipulation check confirmed that the snack sticks were unfamiliar to participants (see Appendix for stimuli and materials). To add robustness, Study 2 also used a different manipulation of mental simulation. Specifically, participants read descriptions of the food they would be tasting rather than seeing pictures of the food.

Participants and design

In all, 141 undergraduate students participated in this study for extra credit. All participants were informed that the study involved a logo game and a food tasting. Participants were randomly assigned to play the game in one of two between-subjects conditions. During the logo game, in which participants had to correctly identify a company based on a picture of the company logo, participants were required to take “mental breaks” after every five logo trials. During the breaks in the “mental simulation” condition, participants were asked to relax and clear their minds by thinking about the upcoming food tasting, and the mental breaks were accompanied by neutral information related to the food tasting taken from the food packaging (e.g. “The snack you will be tasting is made from corn and wheat flour and contains cinnamon and sugar”.). In the control condition, participants were given the same instructions, but the mental breaks were accompanied by neutral information unrelated to the food tasting (e.g. Think about your upcoming birthday; Think about a forest; etc.). All participants received six mental breaks embedded in their logo game. After the logo game, all participants moved on to the food tasting.

Procedure

First, participants forecasted their affect using the same measures from Study 1. Then, participants tasted cinnamon apple snack sticks in a structured food tasting experience that asked participants to focus on the taste, flavors, texture and smell of the food. After tasting the snack, participants rated their affect again. Finally, using the same measures from Study 1 (α = 0.82), participants indicated the extent to which they mentally simulated the food tasting during the logo game.

Results

Mental simulation. As predicted, participants who received mental breaks related to the food tasting visualized the food and imagined eating it more (M = 5.02) than participants who received unrelated mental breaks (M = 3.10; t(139) = 11.31, p < 0.001).

Affective misforecasting. Also as predicted, participants who received mental breaks related to the food tasting felt worse after the tasting than they had forecast (M = −1.21), whereas participants who received unrelated mental breaks felt better than forecast (M = 1.23; t(139) = 2.25, p = 0.026). Thus, participants who thought about the food tasting during the logo game forecast greater positive affect from that experience than they actually received. In contrast, participants who did not think about the food tasting during the logo game forecast less positive affect from that experience than they actually received.

Discussion

Study 2 used both a more neutral manipulation of mental simulation and a different type of extraordinary consumption experience. Mentally simulating an experience, whether it was a virtual tour or a food tasting, resulted in participants misforecasting how positive the experience would make them feel.

Study 3: Manipulating experience type and measuring mindfulness

In Study 3, we manipulate whether the experience is ordinary or extraordinary to determine whether affective misforecasting is greater for extraordinary than ordinary experiences (H1). We also explicitly investigate the underlying process by measuring mindfulness (H2-H3).

Participants and design

In all, 225 undergraduate students participated in this study for extra credit. Participants went on a virtual tour using a 2 (experience type: ordinary versus extraordinary) × 2 (mental simulation: low versus high) between-subjects design. We used a virtual tour of Miami, FL, for the ordinary condition, and a virtual tour of Sydney, Australia, for the extraordinary condition. We chose Miami because of its similarity in appearance to Sydney (i.e. both are modern coastal cities with many high-rises), as well as its familiarity among students at the southeastern university where the study was conducted. A manipulation check confirmed that Miami was more familiar to participants than was Sydney (see Appendix for stimuli and materials). In the “mental simulation” condition, participants saw still pictures of the cityscape associated with their upcoming virtual tour. In the “no mental simulation” condition, participants saw pictures of food, and they were told that the food was popular in the city that the virtual tour would feature. The pictures of food were the same for both the Sydney and Miami virtual tours, and only the cover story explaining from which city the food pictures came differed across conditions.

Procedure

As in Study 1, after seeing the pictures, but before going on the virtual tour, participants predicted how the virtual tour would make them feel. Then, participants responded to the same measures after having gone on the three-minute virtual tour. Participants also indicated the extent to which they mentally simulated the virtual tour experience while viewing the pictures using the same measures from prior studies (α = 0.89).

To measure mindfulness, we adapted measures from prior research (Brown and Ryan, 2003). Participants indicated how they processed the virtual tour using five agree-disagree scales (see Appendix (α = 0.84)).

Results

Mental simulation. Participants viewing pictures of the cityscape related to their upcoming virtual tour mentally simulated the virtual tour experience more (M = 5.09) than participants viewing pictures of food (M = 4.25; F(1, 221) = 23.72, p < 0.001).

Affective misforecasting. An ANOVA revealed a significant main effect of mental simulation, such that participants in the “no mental simulation” condition enjoyed the virtual tour more than anticipated (M = 0.25), whereas those in the “mental simulation” condition enjoyed the virtual tour less than anticipated (M = −0.01; F(1, 221) = 8.03, p = 0.005). There was also a significant main effect of experience type (F(1,221) = 4.69, p = 0.03). Participants enjoyed the ordinary virtual tour significantly more than anticipated (M = 0.22) when compared to participants who saw the extraordinary virtual tour (M = 0.03). Surprisingly, the interaction between experience type and mental simulation did not reach significance (F(1, 221) = 1.23, p > 0.2). However, planned contrasts revealed that within the extraordinary experience condition, participants viewing pictures of Sydney showed significantly greater negative affective misforecasting (M = −0.15) than participants viewing pictures of food (M = 0.20; F(1,221) = 7.80, p = 0.006); there was no significant difference for the ordinary experience condition (M = 0.14 versus 0.30; F(1,221) = 1.48, p > 0.2; see Figure 2).

Mindfulness. As predicted, an ANOVA revealed a significant main effect of mental simulation on mindfulness, such that participants in the “no mental simulation” condition felt significantly more mindful during the virtual tour (M = 4.95) than participants in the “mental simulation” condition (M = 4.65, F(1,221) = 3.87, p = 0.051). Surprisingly, there was a main effect of experience type, such that participants who went on the ordinary virtual tour felt significantly more mindful (M = 5.00) than participants who went on the extraordinary virtual tour (M = 4.59; F(1,221) = 7.17, p = 0.008); we elaborate on this unexpected result in the discussion. There was no significant interaction between experience type and mental simulation (F(1,221) = 1.01, p > 0.3). Again, however, planned contrasts revealed that within the extraordinary experience condition, participants viewing pictures of Sydney felt significantly less mindful (M = 4.36) than participants viewing pictures of food (M = 4.82; F(1,221) = 4.43, p = 0.04); there was no significant difference for the ordinary experience condition (M = 4.93 versus 5.08; F(1,221) = 0.46, p > 0.4; see Figure 3).

We used a mediation analysis to test our prediction that mindfulness mediated the effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting in the extraordinary experience condition. A bootstrapping analysis (Hayes, 2012), using 5,000 samples and a 95 per cent confidence interval (in brackets), indicated that, as predicted, the indirect effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting was mediated by less mindful processing in the extraordinary experience condition (ab = −0.48, [−1.59, −0.002]). When mindfulness was included in the model, the direct effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting remained significant, suggesting partial mediation (ab = −2.70, [−4.95, −0.44]). As expected, mediation analyses revealed no significant effects in the ordinary experience condition.

Discussion

Participants who mentally simulated the extraordinary virtual tour experience displayed greater negative affective misforecasting than participants who did not mentally simulate the experience. Further, participants who mentally simulated the extraordinary virtual tour experience felt significantly less mindful than participants who did not mentally simulate it, and this less mindful processing mediated the effect of mental simulation on negative affective misforecasting. Thus, Study 3 supports the conclusion that mental simulation of extraordinary experiences causes negative affective misforecasting by invoking less mindful processing.

In contrast, participants in the ordinary experience condition exhibited positive affective misforecasting, enjoying the experience more than anticipated, regardless of mental simulation. Although we did not make any predictions regarding the effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting for ordinary experiences, the mindfulness results were unexpected; however, we believe there may be a simple explanation. We chose a virtual tour of a very familiar city to create an ordinary experience. Our participants were either from Miami or had visited several times before. However, the perspective of the virtual tour (an aerial view of the city along the coast) allowed participants to experience Miami in a new and unique way. Therefore, the “ordinary” city they mentally simulated (including their typical neighborhoods, experiences and views) could have been very different from the aerial tour they experienced. The mindfulness literature suggests that seeing a familiar object from a different perspective evokes more mindful processing (Carson, Shih, and Langer, 2001). Therefore, seeing Miami from the new perspective likely evoked mindfulness to a greater extent than we anticipated. In essence, we created a nearly extraordinary experience (i.e. an experience that is uncommon, infrequent and beyond the realm of everyday life (Bhattacharjee and Mogilner, 2014) by altering the perspective of the ordinary experience.

General discussion

Across four studies, we found that mentally simulating an upcoming experience causes greater negative affective misforecasting, at least in part because it makes people process those experiences in a less mindful manner. Three lab studies and one field study, using virtual tour experiences, food tastings and vacations, showed the negative consequences of mental simulation for the enjoyment of hedonic experiences. Specifically, we found that mental simulation can cause greater negative affective misforecasting (all studies), and that this is mediated by less mindful processing (Study 3). We further found that, in comparison to low mental simulation, high mental simulation does not result in negative affective misforecasting for ordinary experiences with which people are extremely familiar, at least when the typically ordinary experience is presented in a new and unfamiliar way (study 3). Taken together, our findings suggest that mental simulation can cause people to anticipate more positive affective responses than they will actually have from an upcoming extraordinary hedonic experience and that mental simulation evokes less mindful processing.

Theoretical implications

Our work hypothesizes and finds empirical support for a novel explanation for affective misforecasting. Whereas previous work has shown that positive product reviews cause people to anticipate a more positive affective experience than actually occurs (Patrick et al., 2007), our work demonstrates that merely thinking about an upcoming experience can result in negative affective misforecasting. Although the literature has found that affective misforecasting may be either positive or negative, it is most likely the case that it will be negative in a hedonic experience context where consumers are eagerly anticipating a concert, vacation or some other very pleasurable experience. Importantly, we provide process evidence revealing why mental simulation causes negative affective misforecasting. Specifically, when people mentally simulate an upcoming extraordinary experience, they subsequently process that experience in a less mindful manner.

This research also demonstrates a novel consequence of mental simulation. Although some prior work suggests that mental simulation increases consumption enjoyment (Nowlis et al., 2004), our studies show that mental simulation results in greater negative affective misforecasts for extraordinary experiences. Although the act of mental simulation may itself benefit wellbeing (Loewenstein, 1987), the consequences of this form of thought can be negative. Our work extends prior research to offer a clearer understanding of when and why mental simulation causes negative affective misforecasting.

Managerial implications

Our findings provide a way for marketers to manage consumers’ evaluations of a consumption experience. Firms offering hedonic experiences often encourage their prospective customers to “picture it now” or “imagine yourself here”, believing that this mental simulation increases sales. However, such messages may result in customers enjoying their experiences less than anticipated if they spend too much time mentally simulating them beforehand. Instead, marketers may want to encourage customers to “come see for themselves”. By promoting the intrigue of the experience, rather than encouraging customers to mentally simulate it, marketers will increase consumers’ positive affective responses to the experience. These increased positive affective responses should lead to more repeat visits as well as more positive word-of-mouth and referrals.

Our research suggests that certain experiences are more prone to the detrimental impact of mental simulation. Specifically, extraordinary experiences are likely to be processed less mindfully after mental simulation. Therefore, marketers may want to target their current and prospective customers differently. For customers for whom the experience will be new and extraordinary, marketers should leave a little mystery about the experience to preserve and enhance a more present-oriented processing style during the experience. Conversely, marketers should encourage current customers, for whom the experience has become ordinary, to see the experience in a new way or to view the experience from a new perspective. Recent research suggests that bringing a close friend to a familiar experience increases the perceived novelty of the experience (Tu et al., 2018). Thus, marketers may wish to encourage repeat customers to bring a close friend to enhance novelty and repeat customers’ subsequent positive affective responses.

Our findings are especially important for companies with multiple offerings. For example, consumers who experience negative affective misforecasting after mentally simulating and experiencing a trip to Disney’s Magic Kingdom may be less likely to visit another theme park under the Disney brand (e.g. Animal Kingdom, Epcot, etc.). Similarly, negative affective misforecasting may affect brand equity: consumers may be less likely to purchase souvenirs and merchandise at Disney stores. As customer experience management becomes increasingly important for companies such as Disney and Starbucks, marketers must effectively manage consumers’ anticipation to avoid negative affective misforecasting.

Limitations and future directions

Our research is not without its limitations, which provide avenues for future research. Our studies involved student populations, which limits the generalizability of our findings. Further, aside from our pilot study, all studies took place in the lab. Future research should investigate the effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting for experiences outside of a lab environment. We offered preliminary evidence of our effects in the field (pilot study), but more elaborate field studies should be conducted. Additionally, our studies did not contain attention checks. Although we would expect our results to be strengthened upon the inclusion of attention checks (and the removal of participants who failed the checks), this still remains as a limitation of our studies. Therefore, future research could explore how the effects may differ using a broader sample of participants and including attention checks. Although Study 3 provides preliminary evidence of the negative effect of mental simulation on mindfulness, we used indirect measures of mindful processing, and future research should also expand on this relationship. For example, future research could more directly test the extent to which schema-driven processing emerges as a result of mental simulation versus mindful processing in the absence of mental simulation.

Another fruitful area for future research entails understanding how companies might ameliorate the negative effect of affective misforecasting. For example, some customers may review a company negatively, saying that they did not enjoy the experience as much as they had expected or the experience seemed different than what they had imagined. Future research could explore whether various tasks to induce mindfulness could make these customers’ subsequent experiences better. A simple mindfulness induction, such as viewing the experience from a new perspective or taking a series of deep breaths (Carson et al., 2001; Kabat-Zinn, 2009), might allow these customers to reverse their negative affective misforecasting. Such an extension of our findings would elevate our understanding of the effects of mental simulation on consumers’ affective misforecasting.

Future research may also investigate the effects of different levels and kinds of mental simulation on affective misforecasting. In our research, we focused on the presence (versus absence) of mental simulation, as prior research has done (MacInnis and Price, 1990). However, recent research differentiated between outcome-focused (why-thinking) and process-focused (how-thinking) simulations for addressing consumer uncertainty in the adoption of new products in the near or distant future (Castaño et al., 2008; Zhao et al., 2011). Whereas outcome-focused mental simulation may encourage initial purchase (e.g. focusing on why having this experience would be beneficial), it may also create greater negative affective misforecasting as consumers recruit primarily positive images to support the purchase. In contrast, process-focused mental simulation may encourage consumers to recruit a more realistic vision of what the experience may be like (e.g. focusing on the steps involved in attaining the experience).

Conclusion

We reviewed research from a variety of research streams, including literature from affective forecasting, mental simulation and savoring and mindfulness, to offer a unified account as to why people sometimes enjoy their hedonic experiences less than anticipated. Initially, findings from the savoring and mental simulation literatures appeared to be at odds with one another, demonstrating that mental simulation/savoring both increased and decreased consumption enjoyment (Chan and Mukhopadhyay, 2010; Nowlis et al., 2004). However, understanding how mental simulation affects mindful processing of experiences helps to reconcile the differences.

We have all experienced that moment when we get what we thought we wanted, but find ourselves less happy than we anticipated. Most people can relate to the eager anticipation they feel right before a major vacation, only to feel somewhat let down by the actual destination upon arrival. Too much mental simulation may cause us to enjoy our most sought-after experiences less than we have anticipated. If we instead employ some moderation by not engaging in extensive mental simulation and allow our hedonic experiences to unfold naturally and mindfully, then we may be rewarded with an even more satisfying experience.

Figures

Proposed process demonstrating the effect of mental simulation on negative affective misforecasting

Figure 1

Proposed process demonstrating the effect of mental simulation on negative affective misforecasting

The effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting for ordinary and extraordinary experiences (Study 3)

Figure 2

The effect of mental simulation on affective misforecasting for ordinary and extraordinary experiences (Study 3)

The effect of mental simulation on mindful processing of ordinary and extraordinary experiences (Study 3)

Figure 3

The effect of mental simulation on mindful processing of ordinary and extraordinary experiences (Study 3)

Appendix: Pilot study

Mental simulation measures

  • How often have you thought about your spring break plans? For example, imagining what the experience will be like, anticipating certain parts, searching related information online or daydreaming about it (endpoints: 1 = Not often at all, 7 = Extremely often).

  • As spring break approaches, I have experienced: (endpoints: 1 = few or no images of doing what I have planned, 7 = Lots of images of doing what I have planned).

  • As your spring break approaches, to what extent have you imagined yourself taking part in what you have planned? (endpoints: 1 = Not at all, 7 = To a great extent).

  • How difficult or easy has it been for you to imagine your spring break plans taking place? (endpoints: 1 = Extremely difficult, 7 = Extremely Easy).

Study 1

Pretest results (N = 54)

Participants were randomly assigned to rate either 10 pictures of food or 10 pictures of Machu Picchu on a 1(not at all attractive/appetizing) to 7(extremely attractive/appetizing) scale. As predicted, there was a significant main effect of picture type (F(1, 52) = 18.74, p > 0.001). Participants found the Machu Picchu pictures to be more attractive (M = 5.87) and the food pictures to be more neutral (M = 4.76).

Also as predicted, there was no difference in mental simulation based on picture type (F(1, 52) = 0.29, p < 0.5), and no difference in mood based on picture type (F(1, 52) = 0.02, p < 0.8). Importantly, the measures referred to food for those rating food pictures (e.g. “As you viewed food pictures, to what extent did images of eating the food come to mind?”) and to Machu Picchu for those rating pictures of Machu Picchu (e.g. “As you viewed the pictures, to what extent did you imagine being at Machu Picchu?”).

Mental simulation measures

  • As you viewed the pictures, to what extent did you imagine being at Machu Picchu? (endpoints: 1 = Not at all, 7 = To a great extent).

  • While viewing the pictures (not while viewing the virtual tour), I experienced: (endpoints: 1 = few or no images of being at Machu Picchu, 7 = Lots of images of being at Machu Picchu).

  • To what extent while viewing the pictures could you imagine vacationing there? (endpoints: 1 = Not at all, 7 = To a great extent).

  • How difficult or easy were the images to create when you viewed the pictures? (endpoints: 1 = Extremely difficult, 7 = Extremely Easy).

  • Please rate the extent to which you agree with the following statement: I had no difficulty imagining being at Machu Picchu while I looked at the pictures. (endpoints: 1 = Strongly disagree, 7 = Strongly agree).

Virtual Tour: www.airpano.ru/files/Machu-Picchu-Peru/2-2

Study 2

Pretest

How familiar are you with this snack?

(endpoints: 1 = not familiar at all, 5 = extremely familiar).

A pretest revealed that familiarity with this snack was significantly below the midpoint of the scale (M = 2.25, t(19) = −3.14, p = 0.005).

Logo game

If the logo is familiar, then enter the company name in the box below. If the logo is unfamiliar, then type “don’t know” in the box. (Participants saw 30 different logos separated by mental breaks).

Mental simulation breaks:

  • Take a moment to clear your mind before continuing. Please use this time to think about the snack tasting experience you will be doing later. Think about what you hope the snack will taste like (it may help to consider foods you have eaten with similar apple cinnamon flavors). You will be able to advance to the next screen in 30 seconds. Please relax and try to imagine the snack tasting.

  • The snacks you will be tasting have been described as “simple little snack sticks that crunch like a chip and taste like a churro.” You will be automatically advanced to the next screen in 30 seconds. Please relax and try to imagine the snack tasting.

  • The multigrain sticks are made with corn flour, rice flour, oat flour, sugar and apple puree. Please relax and try to imagine the taste of the snack sticks.

  • The apple snack sticks are coated with sweet cinnamon-sugar. Please relax and try to imagine the taste of the cinnamon-sugar coating.

  • The snack sticks are satisfying, crunchy little straws that are big on flavor. Please relax and try to prepare yourself for your upcoming snack tasting.

  • The cinnamon apple sticks are a lightweight snack that can also be eaten as dessert. Please relax and get ready for the snack tasting.

Control breaks:

  • Take a moment to clear your mind of logos before continuing. Please use this time to think about the ocean as a mental escape. Think about the rhythmic sound of the waves lapping on the shore. You will be able to advance to the next screen in 30 seconds. Please relax and try to picture the ocean.

  • At this time, picture a lush green forest. Imagine being surrounded by trees as a cool breeze passes by. You will be automatically advanced to the next screen in 30 seconds. Please relax and try to picture the forest.

  • Think about what you plan to do tonight. Use this time to think about your plans. Please relax and try to picture your night.

  • Think about your next birthday. Use this time to think about your plans for your birthday. Please relax and try to picture your birthday plans.

  • For this mental break, imagine yourself enjoying a delicious meal. Please relax and try to picture the food you like to eat.

  • Think about your weekend plans for this mental break. Please relax and try to imagine your upcoming weekend.

Study 3

Pretest results (N = 117)

Participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions: Miami City, Miami food, Sydney City, or Sydney food. Participants rated their familiarity with the city (1 – I have never visited to 5 – I have visited many times), the extent to which they mentally simulated the destination after looking at pictures and their mood. As predicted, there was a significant main effect of city (F(1, 114) = 19.57, p > 0.001), such that participants were more familiar with Miami (M = 1.62) than they were with Sydney (M = 1.05). Also as predicted, there was no difference in mental simulation based on picture type, location or their interaction (Fs < 1.4). There was also no difference in mood based on picture type, location or their interaction (Fs < 1.2).

Mindfulness Measures (All 1-7 scales (strongly disagree to strongly agree).

  • I was completely focused on how I felt during the virtual tour.

  • I was completely focused on being in the moment during the virtual tour.

  • I was totally absorbed in the virtual tour.

  • My full attention was devoted to simply being present.

  • My worries and concerns seemed to melt away during the virtual tour.

Miami Virtual Tour: www.airpano.ru/files/Miami/2-2

Sydney Virtual Tour: www.airpano.ru/files/Sydney-Australia/2-2

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Corresponding author

Gia Nardini can be contacted at: gia.nardini@du.edu