Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories - Pacific Standard

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.
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I've just got to answer my emails, then I can enjoy the beach, the city, and the bars. (Photo: davemcom/Flickr)

I've just got to answer my emails, then I can enjoy the beach, the city, and the bars. (Photo: davemcom/Flickr)

All good things must come to an end, and business meetings go on forever. We're pretty much powerless. Not so, according to new research. Our tendency to categorize things helps us savor what’s good and push through what’s not.

Imagine you’re working your way through a list of chores—you might have to dust some bookshelves, vacuum the rugs, and sweep the floors. Probably you'll check off one group—one category—of chores at a time. If you dust one shelf, vacuum part of a rug, and sweep a bit over there, you're still left with more dusting, more vacuuming, and more sweeping, making your to-do list feel interminable.

An amusement park planner may consider mixing rides and games—that way, visitors will naturally sample different categories rather than finishing up one first, which could make the fun seem more fleeting.

But maybe your list comprises the rivers, museums, and sights you want to see in Berlin. In that case, you might want the list to be interminable. Sail the Spree, the Havel, and the other rivers before hitting Museum Island, and that’s it. No more boat times—just the inexorable march of time. But if you sail the Havel, hit the Neues Museum, visit Mauerpark, there are still three categories to sample from—more rivers, more museums, and more sights.

That intuition turns out to be correct, according to Anuj Shah and Adam Alter. In a series of seven experiments, they show that the average person will try to tick off categories of unpleasant tasks before moving on to the next. They'll do the opposite for more enjoyable things. That way, there are more categories left to sample from—even if the number of things in those categories is the same, that makes it feel like the good times last a little longer.

In one of their studies, Shah and Alter asked 40 undergraduates to taste a series of chocolates from two different brands. In one round, they tasted six milk chocolates, three each from both brands, and in another they tasted a series of six dark chocolates comprising 99 percent cacao—a task the students generally considered unpleasant. Within each round, the students tasted two from one brand and one from the other and then made a choice: finish off the samples from the first company, or sample from the other, leaving one more chocolate from each brand.

When tasting milk chocolate, it was a toss up—48 percent of the students chose to finish off the first company’s samples. That number jumped to 79 percent when they were trudging through dark chocolate taste testing. The researchers argue that by getting one company out of the way in the dark chocolate testing, tasters felt as if they were making more progress, even though they had three bitter pills to go either way.

Businesses might want to take notice. Dentists, the authors write, might want to get the drilling and the shots out of the way up front before moving to the fun, or at least less unpleasant, stuff. Similarly, an amusement park planner may consider mixing rides and games—that way, visitors will naturally sample different categories rather than finishing up one first, which could make the fun seem more fleeting.

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