The Big Idea

For devoted concertgoers, getting their hands on a band’s set list is like winning a hard-earned trophy — it evokes lasting memories. The purposes of a concert set list include audience satisfaction and a memorable experience — and this is where behavioral economists may have something to offer. Indeed, the remembrance of an event is an important source of consumer satisfaction. Bands looking to pack a punch with a concert set list could sequence preferences and use the memory utility model to create a long-lasting memory of each concert simply by the order of the set list’s songs.  

The Scenario

There is little doubt that the construction of concert set lists can improve or diminish a concert going experience. But motivations behind song choices and order differ. Some bands prefer to play audience favorites first, perhaps even get it over with, and save one or two for encores. Other considerations could range from a desire to create tension by slowing things down or playing something to change audience emotions such as a song that makes them feel good followed by one that makes them sad. Or songs may be divided throughout the set list so the drummer’s arms don’t play the same beat for several songs or the lead singer’s voice gets a breather. And there is always a balance with where to place songs the band was tired of playing over and over again!

The challenge for all bands, no matter what the motivation, is to determine the ideal sequence to put  preferred — and less preferred — songs in a set list in order to maximize the concert-goers’ experience. One little-considered question is whether bands should try to maximize satisfaction during the concert or satisfaction remembered after the concert.

The Resolution

Ultimately, it is the memory of the concert that will drive lasting satisfaction and good reviews. But how correlated is the enjoyment during the concert and the memory of it after?

Sequencing is all about deciding how to distribute quality — in this case the most popular songs in a band’s repertoire. The event utility model recommends a high-low-high sequence. Because at the beginning there is no carryover from the past, it is optimal to have higher than average stimuli first — in this case, to open with a well-loved song and then end with a higher-than-average-quality song.

The ideal sequence for memory utility is also high-low-high. The first song contributes more to memories and ought to be higher quality than average. Also, the memories of the last song will endure more because their decay starts later.

If the goal is to have concert-goers return for another show, maximizing memory utility would be appropriate. Either way, though, these two utility functions are highly correlated.

The Lesson

The practical reasons for sequence preferences and the high-low-high pattern extend beyond entertainment. Numerous situations require sequencing objects or activities. For example, the delivery of content in a presentation, the design of a syllabus for a course, or the ordering of sites and cities one will visit during a vacation. In all these situations, a high-low-high design is the pattern we recommend to maximize savoring during — and memory after — the experience. Sequencing does not require additional resources and can create value because some sequences are preferable to others.

The preceding is based on the case Preference for Sequences: Rock Loud and Proud Music Set List (Darden Business Publishing), by Darden Professor Manel Baucells and Senior Researcher Gerry Yemen.

Manel Baucells co-authored “Everything in Moderation: Foundations and Applications of the Satiation Model,” forthcoming in Management Science, with Lin Zhao of the Academy of Mathematics and Systems Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Learn more about optimal sequencing in the Darden Business Publishing case
About the Expert

Manel Baucells

Associate Professor of Business Administration

Baucells researches the incorporation of psychological realism into consumer behavior models, focusing on factors like anticipation, reference point comparison, mental accounting, psychological distance and satiation. He is an expert in consumer behavior, decision analysis and game theory.

Prior to his time at Darden, Baucells taught at IESE Business School and the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, as well as served as senior economist at the Rand Corporation in California. He is co-author of the book Engineering Happiness, which applies principles of behavioral economics to happiness, and which was honored with the Decision Analysis Society Publication Award in 2014.

M.S., Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya; MBA, IESE Business School; Ph.D., UCLA Anderson School of Management

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