When their time together is running out, lovers in movies often make grand gestures. They fly to Paris, perhaps, or set sail at sunset.

But does life echo art?

The Extraordinary Over the Convenient  

In new research to be published in Psychological Science, Texas A&M Professor Ximena Garcia-Rada and Darden Professor Tami Kim examine the decisions people make when shared time with loved ones is scarce. They find that even when offered options that are more convenient, people would rather choose to share extraordinary experiences.

Garcia-Rada and Kim theorize that people are hoping to strengthen a high-value “focal relationship” through special experiences that will create lasting memories. It’s an insight that feels particularly relevant as the U.S. starts to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and people are deliberately making choices about their time, money and relationships.

“It’s definitely relevant to the time we’re living in,” notes Garcia-Rada, predicting that people who’ve felt separated from family members and friends over the past 18 months will “engage in memorable and extraordinary experiences to make up for lost time.” After all, the restrictions imposed by the pandemic have contributed to a sense of scarcity of time together.

Time Scarcity

Even in the best of times, many Americans don’t have a lot of extra time with those who matter most to them. According to a study conducted by Visit Anaheim in 2018, American families have less than an hour of quality time together per night and only about a week’s vacation each year.1[i] A growing number of couples have long-distance relationships or have moved away from family, all factors that contribute to a sense of “shared time scarcity,” Kim says.

Past scholarship has also shown that when people are primed to think about the value of time, they spend more time socializing with others and they invest more heavily in relationships rather than personal ambitions.

Studies have also shown people derive greater happiness when they spend money on life experiences versus material goods.

The Way We Weigh Resources

In a series of experiments, Garcia-Rada and Kim teased out what kinds of experiences people prefer when they feel their time with a partner is limited.

The Pursuit of the Extraordinary

In one experiment, the researchers tested how participants reacted to social media ads that primed them to think of time as short or as abundant. The experiment ran for 10 days, targeting registered social media users over 18 years of age residing in the Boston area. The campaign reached about 25,000 people.

Garcia-Rada and Kim first determined that people have “an intuitive, shared understanding of extraordinariness,” tied to a common notion that an extraordinary experience is defined by being both superior and unique.

“Summer just began so you will have a lot of time to hang out with your loved ones! Check out these extraordinary experiences in Boston,” read one ad, which implied the viewer had plenty of time ahead. The “scarcity condition” ad read: “Summer is so short so you won’t have that much time to hang out with your loved ones! Check out these extraordinary experiences in Boston.” Users were then taken to a website that provided information on extraordinary activities in Boston.

More people clicked on the ad when it “evoked shared time scarcity (8.85 percent of users) than when it did not (7.5 percent of users),” a statistically significant increase.

The Value of Connection

In a second experiment, Garcia-Rada and Kim set up a writing task. Half the subjects (393 participants total, 46 percent male) received a prompt suggesting time with their romantic partners was scarce, while the other received prompts suggesting time was abundant.

Participants who were prompted with the notion that time was limited said that it was “critical for the success of their relationship” that they and their partner remained connected — specifically, they wanted to be on each other’s minds even when they weren’t together.

New Partners

The preference for extraordinary experiences also held for people who weren’t necessarily deeply close with another person but had begun to develop a relationship. Garcia-Rada and Kim randomly paired up 100 participants and had them perform a closeness induction task — a psychological tool in which two people ask each other a progressively more personal series of questions. Afterward, half were told they’d have “plenty of time” to interact further with their new friend, while the rest were told they would only get one more interaction with their new friend. They were given a choice to share a single “extraordinary” piece of high-end Swiss chocolate with their partner or two pieces of mass-produced chocolate. More people in the scarce condition (80 percent) opted for sharing the smaller amount of “extraordinary” chocolate over the greater amount of mass-produced sweet (63 percent).  

Colleagues

In their final experiment, Garcia-Rada and Kim had study participants (799 total) consider which restaurant they would choose for a meal with a visiting work colleague, one with whom they had a strong or weak relationship maintenance goal. Additionally, some were told the colleague would be working in town for months, while the others were told they had just a single night with this co-worker. More participants who had just one night chose the restaurant that was highly rated for “uniqueness” over another eatery that was more convenient when they had a strong goal to foster the relationship with their colleague. (Both fictional restaurants were advertised as having similar costs and food quality.) 

Implications for Consumption Behaviors

Kim says the relationship between time scarcity and special experiences gives marketers important insights, not just into how to present products, but also into the trade-offs people make when they are buying for joint consumption.

“There is growing interest among marketers to think about consumption behaviors not just when you’re buying for yourself, but when you’re buying to share with others,” she notes. “This [work] helps marketers think about what kinds of shared experiences are attractive in what circumstances, and the situations in which people would deprioritize convenience in favor of going for something extra.”

Tami Kim co-authored “Shared Time Scarcity and the Pursuit of Extraordinary Experiences,” forthcoming in Psychological Science, with Ximena Garcia-Rada of Texas A&M University.

  • 1. Sam Paul, “American Families Barely Spend Quality Time Together,” New York Post, 20 March 2018, https://nypost.com/2018/03/20/american-families-barely-spend-quality-time-together/.