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Is buying experiences better than buying things? Not for everyone

Everybody is made happiest by purchasing experiences, right? A new study tells us to rethink our cliche.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can rent it for a long time. Knowing this, a great deal of effort has been spent trying to find out how to maximize the happiness we get out of the money we spend. Lately, it has been almost cliché to mention how studies show buying experiences is better for happiness than buying things. However, new research reveals a glaring problem with that cliché.


The thing about things 

A paper recently published in Psychological Science by Jacob C. Lee, Deborah Hall, and Wendy Wood questions the methods of previous studies which tend to use relatively affluent college students as guinea pigs. The goal of the study was to see if the results of previous tests held up when less affluent people were included. 

The researchers asked their test subjects to answer questions about their income, job, and education level. The subjects were then categorized according to their answers to give a sense of their social class using the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status

The three tests began. The subjects were first asked to recall a recent purchase of a material item and an experience. That purchase was then ranked on a scale showing how happy it made them and placed on a range from “definitely experiential” to “definitely object.” 

The data was clear, while the higher-class participants were made happiest by material purchases, the lower-class participants were made happiest by purchasing objects.

In the second test, the participants were randomly assigned to recall either a material or experiential purchase they had made and rate how happy it had made them. Again, the higher-class test subjects said they were made happiest by purchasing experiences while lower-class subjects favored material goods.

In the last test, the participants were again asked to recall either a material or experiential purchase, and then imagine that their income was either raised or lowered by 50%. They were then asked to consider how they would alter their budget given this change and how it would make them feel to have this shock to their finances occur.

After imagining that their finances had changed for a bit, they were then asked to consider how happy either a material or experiential purchase would make them. Some participants were told to think of the same items they had thought of at the start of the task and others were told to think of new ones they could make at their new, imagined, income level.

While the effect was minor, there was a tendency for people to favor buying experiences when they imagined their finances improving and buying goods when their condition worsened.

What does this all mean?

When money is tight, buying material things makes us happier than buying experiences. When we’re rolling in cash, it’s the other way around.  

Writer Juliet Hodges suggests that the findings relate to how much leisure time we have. The idea being that well-off people will need to buy experiences to fill it while worse-off people would want items that save time. This idea is based on several studies that show how much happier people are made by time-saving purchases.

It should be noted though that the study was based on people remembering how happy their purchases made them. This reduces the reliability of the study since memory can be faulty. However, the basic finding of the study is supported by the last test even without appealing to memory.  

So, what should I do if I’m in the lower class? 

Don’t think that you can’t be happy because you know buying experiences is irresponsible given your current condition. The best thing to do, from a purely cost benefits stance, is to buy the things you need. The happiness payoff will be just as good as if you had bought an overpriced night out instead.

Wasn’t this obvious? 

It seems kind of obvious that people who don’t have enough money for extravagant experiential purchases might get more happiness out of having certain things, some of which might be desperately needed. However, previous studies into this idea had not taken income levels into account and tended to have test subjects who were more affluent than the rest of the population.  

It is yet another example of a phenomenon that was only studied in certain groups; leading us to have an incorrect idea about how other people were affected. The tendency to use college students as guinea pigs happens so much there is even an acronym for the typical test subject: WEIRD.

Having more things doesn’t always equal more happiness, but not having anything isn’t much fun either. This paper reminds us that studies on how money can influence happiness must take care to remember people without money too. 

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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