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How Duration Affects Consumer Experience

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The longstanding theory of “duration neglect” asserts that the length of an experience has little influence on how it’s perceived; of much more importance are key moments during that experience. New research suggests these two are inseparable.

For nearly three decades, the theory of “duration neglect” has shaped the way academics and practitioners think about consumer experiences. Given that people recall experiences as a series of discrete snapshots rather than a continuous movie, this theory asserts that what matters most in the overall evaluation of an experience is the intensity, good or bad, of a few key moments, namely the peak and end. How good or bad was the best or worst moment? How good or bad was the end? The length of the experience, meanwhile, is of little importance.

Intuitively, we may believe that 15 minutes of waiting at the DMV is preferable to 45 minutes; or that two days of seaside relaxation are preferable to one. But in fact what matters to our overall retrospective evaluation is the relative pleasantness of select shards of a given experience.

Recently published research by Gal Zauberman of Yale SOM, with Evan Weingeraten from Arizona State University and Kristin Diehl from the University of Southern California, challenges this prevailing assumption.

The problem with duration neglect, the researchers explain, is that it asks the wrong question about duration. Where previous research has tried to measure the direct effect of duration on how we perceive an experience, holding key moments constant, Zauberman and his colleagues instead argue and demonstrate that duration plays a secondary or indirect role by influencing the strength of key moments. “Duration and key moments are not separate, independent factors, but rather duration alters the very experience of certain key moments,” they write. Duration, that is, influences how we perceive the peak and the end of an experience.

The researchers outlined this connection through seven experiments, both online and in-person, in which participants were exposed to unpleasant sounds, like an airhorn, a mosquito, or a siren. (The studies used only negative experiences, as these are perceived more universally; the findings should, in theory, extend to positive experience.) Throughout the experiment, participants rated how unpleasant a given sound was every second; participants also gave a retrospective rating to the experience as a whole. By varying how long people were exposed to these unpleasant sounds as well as when during the experience the noise was loudest, the researchers teased out the relationship between the duration of an experience and people’s perceptions of it.

Most fundamentally, they found that the timing of key moments during an experience–in this case, whether an annoying noise was loudest early or late in a period of listening–affects how people perceive those key moments. People rated an experience worse if it was long with a loud noise at the end than if it was short with a loud noise at the end; the rating of the noise specifically was worse, as well. “We demonstrate that for aversive sounds, the time preceding the peak and end intensifies the experience of these key moments,” the researchers write.

These results harbor previously unrecognized implications for the way in which experiences are structured. From negative experiences like a medical procedure, to positive experiences like, say, dining at a restaurant, the chronological placement of highlights as they relate to the total length of the experience may be more important than previously thought. “Duration matters,” the researchers write, “but matters indirectly,” through its impact on how we perceive key moments.