Let’s say that you’re on eBay and see an auction for something you really want. You end up having to fight for it right down to the wire, but eventually lose to a last second sniper. Annoyed, you go prowling around and find the same item for more money as a Buy it Now. Without hesitation, you buy it, paying a substantial premium over the ending price from the auction you just lost.
A week later the item arrives at your house. You open the box and are elated, right? Wrong. In fact, you can’t even recall why you liked the thing so much to begin with. That night you put it back up for auction on eBay.
Does this make any sense to you?
A new study in the journal Psychological Science suggests that this scenario, with whichever elements you’d rather sub in, isn’t only plausible, it’s predictable, and it has much to do with the peculiar love-hate relationship between wanting and liking.
As we’ve all experienced, when you really want something but are prevented from getting it, you want it all the more. This is even truer of relationships than objects. The jilted lover syndrome is a Hollywood mainstay because just about everyone can relate.
Researchers started with that well-known phenomenon and wanted to know how they could create a “counter-drive” dynamic between wanting and liking—that is, causing someone to pursue her ‘want’ even after her ‘like’ is gone.
In one experiment, participants were offered an opportunity to win a prize they said they wanted. When they failed to win (in other words, when their ‘want’ was jilted), they were offered the opportunity to buy the same item for more money than it cost those who won it. By a significant margin, those who were jilted did exactly that. But when then asked if they’d like to trade the item away, most of the jilted crew said “yep, take it.”
In another experiment, participants were given the opportunity to win Guess sunglasses. Those who were jilted and didn’t win the sunglasses were then presented with an opportunity to choose between a Guess wristwatch and a Calvin Klein wristwatch. Most of those who were jilted chose the Guess wristwatch. You might think that’s because they really like Guess products, right? Nope. When asked for their evaluation of Guess wristwatches, they rated them surprisingly low.
What’s going on here? The research team believes that when our desire is stoked, we’re in an intense emotional go-mode. But when we’re jilted, the intensity of our emotion goes negative, and that negativity rubs off on the object of our original desire. The weird thing is that the same intensity still pushes us forward to get (or try to get) the thing we wanted even when we’re beyond liking it.
When it comes to relationships, needless to say, this story frequently ends badly. And god knows eBay makes a ridiculous amount of money leveraging the same dynamic. Yet another bit of evidence that rationality isn’t such a dependable ally when our limbic system dials up the desire.