Jeffrey Vietri was a psychology student at Rutgers University when he realized there was one thing he desperately needed. A salad spinner.
"I was a grad student at the time, and every penny counted, so after a month of fantasizing about a salad spinner I bought one," Vietri, obviously a man of modest needs, said in a telephone interview. "I used it a few times the first week, and in a month it was pushed into the darkest recess in the darkest cabinet in the kitchen."
Sometime later, he recalled that bit of economic debauchery when talking with Gretchen Chapman, his faculty adviser, and Janet Schwartz, another grad student. The three decided to explore a question most of us wrestle with during the holiday season:
Are we really going to use that new widget on the top of our Christmas list as often as we think we are?
After months of interviewing "several hundred" students, they came up with an answer. No way. Their study, published in the journal Social Influence, found that nearly two thirds of the time people overestimate how much they will use that must-have gizmo. They don't use it half as much as they thought they would, and a perfect stranger could have told them that, the study contends.
Misguided Purchases Have Environmental Impact
That may not surprise many folks, because we all probably have a bunch of things we never use, although there was a time when we thought we just had to have them. Despite the current economic problems plaguing the nation, we live in a time of relative wealth, paving the way toward conspicuous consumption, especially during the holiday season.
Vietri thinks that's a bad thing. "Buying a lot of stuff you don't need" is wasteful, said Vietri who is now an instructor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pa. Or, as the study concludes:
"Misguided purchases may have a considerable environmental impact. These under-used items have to be produced, shipped, and trucked to their destination, and then disposed of, often trucked to a landfill in a plastic bag.
While not a panacea, we suggest that a small step toward solving the problems of (insufficient) savings, clutter and the environment is to consult with others about our purchases, find out how much they think we will use any given item, and take their prediction seriously."
Feel Guilty Over Stuff You Crave? You're Likely Not Alone
Why would anyone else know our needs better than we know ourselves? Quite possibly because we all feel some guilt over the stuff we thought we had to have, but never use, so we're doubtful that anyone else will use their stuff as much as they think they will, either.
At least that's what the study suggests. The researchers interviewed 164 college students before last Christmas to determine which gift they wanted the most, and how often they thought they would use it.
The following spring they tried to track down the students to see if their wishes were fulfilled, but many of them had vanished, or they didn't get their new whiz-banger and were eliminated, so the researchers ended up with only 42 students, a fairly small sample.
But the students confessed that they had grossly overestimated how often they would use their new acquisition. Meanwhile, 118 observers had been recruited to see if they could make a better estimate of how often the students would use their new toys.
Some of the observers were told what each participant had predicted. And here's the curious wrinkle: the observers were far more accurate than the students in predicting how often the new item would be used. They downgraded the students' predictions, possibly because they had been there themselves and had a lot of stuff collecting dust in their own homes.
"The informed observers took the recipient's predictions and poured salt on them," Vietri said.
Other observers were not told of the students predictions, and they were no more accurate in their predictions than the students themselves.
The conclusion: Even a stranger knows better than you if what you are wishing for will end up in the trash bin.
However, as a social psychologist who once lusted after a salad spinner, Vietri knows it's hard to change human nature. And by the way, there's a dusty salad spinner in my attic if anyone needs one.