Here’s an example. We give up our Ford Focus and buy an Audi. We are immediately impressed by how much more fun it is to drive the Audi. It is better engineered, better built. But it is not very long before we forget the Focus. And eventually we come to take the Audi for granted. Our pleasure has turned to comfort.
I am a little suspicious of the argument as a general proposition. I own things that continue to give pleasure long after purchase. I love my ThinkPad. I love my new pen, a Parker Jotter (pictured). Inexpensive, a little inelegant, old fashioned, it is the perfect implement for the hard working ethnographer (and a lot likes its owner). I’ve had my Jotter for several months now and if anything I grow more fond of it.
(Scitovsky assumes that the meanings of the object are only those created by marketing and that these wear away with ownership. But we know perfectly well that our possessions take on new, more personal, meanings, and that good marketing "scores" them precisely so that they may do so. When this is the case, the first pleasure ownership is augmented by second and subsequent pleasures.)
But Scitovsky is on to something. I now live in a free standing house much roomier and better appointed than the little condo I had in Montreal. I have ceased to note the difference and no longer treasure more room, a back yard, the ability to walk to the Long Island sound. This pleasure has turned to comfort. My present cell phone is much better than my first cell phone but I do not give it credit for the difference. Pleasure is merely comfort.
And this brings me, of course, to the shower head of my room at the Hilton. For reasons of its own, it delivers an inconsistent temperature. Sometimes, the water is much hotter than I want. Sometimes, less. Generally, it circulates gently up and down this narrow range, but occasionally it spikes high, and I have to be quick about getting out of the way. (This turns out to be good training for the rest of the day.)
Now, I am pretty sure this is an accidental product feature. The water system of the hotel must deliver water at many temperatures to many rooms, so variation is inevitable. But this does have the effect of gently changing the temperature, and giving me the pleasure of reentry. As I return from too warm or too cold to "just right," I have the opportunity to appreciate "just right" all over again.
And I wonder of this is not a way of solving the Scitovsky problem. Could we build variation into product formula in order to remind the consumer of what they liked about the product in the first place?
Clearly, it doesn’t make any sense to hobble our Audi for some purposes that we might be reminded of its "go fast" ability in others. And indeed we don’t have to. Traffic congestion takes care of this. Variation is naturally occurring.
Similarly, I don’t want my Parker pen to skip periodically that I may reminded of its ability to write smoothly. But it might be possible to build in a shifting center of balance so that the pen feels differently in the hand from time to time. This would help remind me of how well it is designed. (Naturally, it should also be possible for me to lock in or release this ability as I want.)
I know that some companies are thinking about how they can allow the consumer to change the formula by, say, twisting the bottom of a can. But what I like about the Frankfurt shower head is precisely that my intervention is not required, that variation happens on its own.
I can see designers perhaps rising to this opportunity. After all, we do sometimes come to take for granted their best work. Work in a little variation, and we are returned to our first reaction of awe struck wonder. What designerly ego could resist this opportunity?
We could see a time when a variation cycle is a standard feature of design, and something we go looking for. (Of course, some will want something that remains precisely what it is and not another thing.) But on balance, I think variation might be the coming thing, and it represents a new challenge for the designer, yet another consideration that must be factored in. (Note to self: ask Holly Kretschmar at Ideo if there’s anything like this in the works.)
Ours is a culture that embraces variation, variety, change and even discontinuity. Sometimes this mean we prefer things to remain precisely what they are. But there will be moments when this immutability will make brands and products seem tedious and a little repetitive, as if they insist on making the same joke over and over again. Static products may eventually appear stingy and withholding. These will be products to avoid, for they do nothing in the face of the Scitovsky effect, blithely allowing pleasure to disappear into comfort.
Scitovsky, Tibor. 1992. The Joyless Economy. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press.