Dr. GoodCents: Is It a Good Deal to Buy ‘The Best?’

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shutterstock_61830424A clinical psychologist with nearly 30 years of experience, Dr. Shapiro is ready to answer questions, offer advice and share strategies to help you alleviate the mental stresses of money management. Send your question to GoodCentsDr@gmail.com and it may be answered in an upcoming column!

One of the costs of being financially responsible is that you cannot buy “the best,” which presumably means you won’t enjoy your purchases as much as if you could spend big amounts of money—right? Actually, wrong, at least much of the time.

Wine Tasting, Anyone?

It’s hard to think of a product with a bigger price range than wine. You can buy a cheap bottle for a few bucks, but if you want the best, the prices go over $1,000, and of course there are bottles for every price in between. The wine industry is populated with connoisseurs who analyze flavors down to the molecular level and wax eloquent about bouquets, hints of cassis, subtle earthiness, and so forth.

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Wine connoisseurs undoubtedly know a lot, but regular people can’t taste what they’re talking about. Numerous experiments have consistently shown that, in blind taste tests, people cannot tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. This can be shown in two ways: People cannot tell which wine is more expensive, and they do not like expensive wines more than cheap ones—except if they’re told which wine is more expensive.

That’s a big “if.” When people are told the true prices of wines, they consistently say the more expensive ones are better. But when people are told false prices, they do the same thing. Psychologically, when we believe something is expensive, we perceive it to be higher quality—even when it’s not.

The connoisseurs can be fooled, too. Frédéric Brochet, a researcher from Bordeaux, asked 57 experts to evaluate the contents of two bottles—which had the same wine poured into them, prior to the experiment. The bottles were different. One bore a prestigious label, and one an ordinary one. The experts described the supposedly expensive wine as “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded.” They said the the supposedly cheaper one was “weak, short, light, flat and faulty.”

It doesn’t seem worth it to pay real money for an illusion like this.

Will I Use All These Options?

A less spectacular but equally important way to waste money happens when we buy features that exist, and we can tell they are there, but the features don’t add anything of value to our experience of the product. In these cases, we have bought something real, but it doesn’t do us any good.

When marketing professors Debora Thompson, Rebecca Hamilton, and Roland Rust offered consumers choices among digital devices (various types of video players, PDAs, etc.), most people selected the option with the most features. Also, when consumers had an opportunity to customize their devices, they chose an average of 20 out of a possible 25 features. In the product selection phase, people like lots of bells and whistles.

Things changed when the consumers took their purchases home and used them. Many people never figured out how to use most of the extras they had chosen. Others did learn how but got tired of most of the extras over time so that, after a while, most were using just the basic features of their devices. The professors coined the term “feature fatigue” to describe the usual fate of fancy options in our products.

Keep It Simple

Market research has found that we have different priorities when we buy products and when we use them. In the buying stage, people emphasize the capability of devices; we want things that can do as much as possible, because this makes us feel we have bought something great. The ownership stage, however, is all about the usability of products; the important thing is whether the device enables us to do what we want to do. Our priorities in these two stages are quite different, and sometimes the priorities are in conflict, because maximizing capability often requires so many complications that the product’s usability suffers.

And that’s before money is even brought into the equation! Frequently, our desire to have “the best” causes us to spend money we can’t afford on gizmos we won’t use. How many settings do you really need on that gas grill?

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Everyone’s eyes get big when we’re in the buying mode, but once we bring the stuff home we want to get things done in the easiest, most convenient way possible, and the way to do that is to keep things simple. Putting ourselves in the mindset of a user while in the buying stage helps us make better decisions in two ways: We’ll acquire products that are easier to use, and we’ll save money for the priorities that matter.

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