For once, social scientists have discovered a flaw in the human psyche that will not be tedious to correct. You may not even need a support group. You could try on your own by starting with this simple New Year’s resolution: Have fun ... now!
Then you just need the strength to cash in your gift certificates, drink that special bottle of wine, redeem your frequent flier miles and take that vacation you always promised yourself. If your resolve weakens, do not succumb to guilt or shame. Acknowledge what you are: a recovering procrastinator of pleasure.
It sounds odd, but this is actually a widespread form of procrastination — just ask the airlines and other marketers who save billions of dollars annually from gift certificates that expire unredeemed. Or the poets who have kept turning out exhortations to seize the day and gather rosebuds.
But it has taken awhile for psychologists and behavioral economists to analyze this condition. Now they have begun to explore the strange impulse to put off until tomorrow what could be enjoyed today.
Why, for instance, is it so hard to find time to visit landmarks in your own backyard? People who have moved to Chicago, Dallas and London get to fewer local landmarks during their entire first year than the typical tourist visits during a two-week stay, according to a study conducted by Suzanne B. Shu and Ayelet Gneezy, who are professors of marketing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Diego, respectively. The Chicagoans in the study had visited more landmarks in other cities than in their own, and even their relatively small amount of local sightseeing was done mainly in the course of entertaining out-of-towners. Otherwise, the only time Chicagoans rushed to see the local landmarks was just before they were about to move to another city, when that deadline inspired sudden passions for taking architectural tours and going to the zoo.
When there is no immediate deadline, we’re liable to put off going to the zoo this weekend because we assume that we will be less busy next weekend — or the weekend after that, or next summer. This is the same sort of thinking that causes us to put the gift certificate in the drawer because we expect to have more time for shopping in the future.
We’re trying to do a cost-benefit analysis of the time lost versus the pleasure or money to be gained, but we’re not accurate in our estimates of “resource slack,” as it is termed by Gal Zauberman and John G. Lynch. These behavioral economists found that when people were asked to anticipate how much extra money and time they would have in the future, they realistically assumed that money would be tight, but they expected free time to magically materialize.
Hence you’re more likely to agree to a commitment next year, like giving a speech, that you would turn down if asked to find time for it in the next month. This produces what researchers call the “Yes ... Damn!” effect: when the speech comes due next year, you bitterly discover you’re still as busy as ever.
Dr. Shu and Dr. Gneezy demonstrated another effect of this fallacy by giving people gift certificates good for movie tickets and French pastries. Some got certificates that expired within two to three weeks; others got certificates good for six to eight weeks.
The people who received the long-term certificates were more confident than the others that they would redeem the gifts — a logical enough assumption, given all the extra time they had. But they just kept putting it off, and ultimately they were more likely to let the gift go unredeemed than the people who had received the short-term certificates.
Once you start procrastinating pleasure, it can become a self-perpetuating process if you fixate on some imagined nirvana. The longer you wait to open that prize bottle of wine, the more special the occasion has to be.
If you’re determined to get the absolute maximum out of those frequent flier miles, you can end up wasting them, as Dr. Shu found in an experiment offering people a chance to use discount coupons in the course of buying a series of plane tickets. Once the subjects were told that they might have a chance at a free flight worth $1,000, they scorned lesser awards and hung on to their coupons so long that in the end they had to use them for much cheaper flights.
“People can become overly focused on an ideal,” Dr. Shu said. “Even if they know it’s unlikely, they get so focused on the perfect scenario that they block everything else. Or they anticipate that they’ll kick themselves later if they take second-best option and then see the best one is still available. But they don’t realize that regret can go the other way. They’ll end up with something worse and regret not taking the second-best one.”
But even if you know about all this research, how can you apply these lessons? How can you avoid the temptation to postpone pleasure? (You can offer suggestions at nytimes.com/tierneylab.) One immediate strategy, Dr. Shu said, is to cash in quickly any gift certificate you received this holiday season. “The biggest danger is that it will be forgotten and expire,” she said. “One of the best presents you can give back to the giver is to use it quickly and then tell them how much you enjoyed it. The regret from not using it will be bigger than the regret from using it on a nonperfect occasion, for you and especially for the person who gave it.”
Another tactic is to give yourself deadlines. Cash in the miles by summer, even if you can’t get a round-the-world trip out of them. Instead of waiting for a special occasion to indulge yourself, create one. Dr. Shu approvingly cites the pioneering therapeutic work of Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, who for the past decade used their Wall Street Journal column on wine to proclaim the last Saturday of February to be “Open That Bottle Night.”
But you don’t even have to wait until Feb. 27. Remember the advice offered in the movie “Sideways” to Miles, who has been holding on to a ’61 Cheval Blanc so long that it is in danger of going bad. When Miles says he is waiting for a special occasion, his friend Maya puts matters in perspective:
“The day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion.”