As many people gear up for Halloween this week, the aftermath of the holiday may be a bit bittersweet if you have kids. Despite the fun of costumes and spooky excitement in the air, the fallout from trick-or-treating can be rough—especially when little lamentations of “he got more than me!” are heard as the evening draws to a close.
A new study from Chicago Booth’s Christopher K. Hsee hints that this phenomenon is not just a kid thing. It begins to explain just why we see another person’s loot as fundamentally better—or bigger—than our own.
Previous research has shown the “grass is always greener on the other side” phenomenon to be quite true in humans, but Hsee’s series of experiments shows that it’s a little more complicated than this—and much of it depends on your own internal state when you’re making comparisons. And when you’re hungry, vs. satisfied, another person’s food can look a heck of a lot better than your own.
In one of the experiments, the researchers had people who were either hungry or satiated gauge the size of a cake that was given to them—or the size of another person’s cake. When the participants were hungry, they estimated that the other person’s cake was larger, and their own cakes as being smaller, compared to when they were full. Hsee and his team say that this has to do with “wishful” vs. “worryful” thinking.
“Wishful” thinking takes over when the object of your desire belongs to another person: Since you’re desirous of their bounty, it can look better than it actually is. But “worryful” thinking takes over when you’re rating an object that already belongs to you, since you’re concerned that what you have may not be enough to satisfy you.
These differences in thought processes explain not only why we might crave another person’s edible goodies, but also why we may be dissatisfied with purchases of trinkets and other objects after the fact.
The authors write that window-shopping, for example, can trigger “wishful” thinking since the object of our desire is owned by another. But after we make the purchase, “worryful” thinking kicks in as we begin worry that the purchase may not be worth the price.
And the same may be true for little trick-or-treaters, who, once home with their spoils, may complain that they have less than their friends. There may be no perfect solution to this yearly debacle, but making sure they go trick-or-treating on a full stomach may be a first step.
—Alice G. Walton
Cat:More, Sub:Behavioral Science,