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Mixing memory with reality can bring pleasure to the routine

bored, sandwich, lunchContrary to conventional wisdom, you can get too much of a good thing. A favorite song can get downright annoying after a few dozen listens, and a preferred lunch can become old hat if packed too many times.

Could simply recalling other tunes, or meals, bring back your original enjoyment? Some recent research suggests this kind of “virtual variety” might just do the trick.

The stakes might be higher than you think. “Satiation is a real problem,” says Jeff Galak, a marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the lead author of the study published recently online in the Journal of Consumer Research. “If we stop enjoying the things we enjoy, we’ll be forced to find the next best thing. And if that continues in perpetuity, we’ll never be happy with what we have.”

Previous research has suggested that preferences depend in large measure on what we remember, but that our internal record keeping is typically incomplete and imbalanced. We tend to forget the variety in our lives. Maybe a little manipulation of our memories could reduce this “variety amnesia.”

To test the theory, Galak and his team conducted three experiments, each addressing different categories of things which can grow tiresome: people, music and food.

In the first experiment, the researchers found that people were more eager to hang out with a close friend after thinking first about socializing with other friends.

In the second, participants listened to a favorite song 20 times—enough to make them sick of it. Three weeks later, those who recalled hearing other songs during the intervening weeks regained significantly more enjoyment of the original tune.

The last experiment replaced songs with a variety of jellybeans, from green apple to licorice. As expected, a preferred flavor tasted better to participants who recalled eating other beans after the initial study-induced satiation.

So thinking about something else you like might enhance the perception of an old standby. Galak suggests this “simple manipulation” could be applied to “anything giving pleasure over time,” whether that’s intimate relationships or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

He also sees the potential for this technique to be applied to jobs where monotony can lead to error, though he can’t prove it just yet. A worker would need multiple tasks to think about to “reset the level of boredom,” he explains. Of course, if a task was dull to begin with, the room for improvement is minimal. “We can make it less boring over time,” says Galak. “But we’ll probably never make it as enjoyable as chocolate or a movie.”

Photo by 3bugsmom via iStockphoto.

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