A message to you: take the time to smell the roses



Anyone who remembers the English ska band The Specials may also recall a tune of theirs called Enjoy Yourself (It's later than you think). It turns out that this song was a remake of a much older piece from 1949 made famous by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. But it remains sound advice even in this day and age. After all, one never knows what the future holds. There is always that proverbial bus waiting around the corner for you to step off the kerb.

Yet researchers have found that people still put off until tomorrow what they could enjoy today. In a recent study, two marketing professors in California - Suzanne B Shu at the University of California Los Angeles' Anderson School of Management and Ayelet Gneezy at the University of California San Diego's Rady School of Management - found people tend to put off rewarding themselves with positive experiences, often until the opportunity has passed them by.

This is something companies have been on to for years. Airlines, for example, count on frequent fliers to keep putting off using their miles for free flights until the miles expire. Similarly, phone companies rake in profits off the fact that people buy prepaid cards and then never get around to using them all. Washington DC recently sued AT&T over these unused minutes, arguing that they should be considered unclaimed property and the money used to buy them handed over to the government. But phone companies clearly see prepaid cards as a sort of gift certificate for phone time. Once the card is sold, it is up to the buyer to redeem the minutes.

Having observed how many Kenneth Cole coupons and gift certificates for free meals they found sitting expired in their own wallets, the two California researchers handed out gift certificates to a group of subjects for a US$6 (Dh22) slice of cake and a beverage at a fancy French cafe. Half of the group received gift certificates good for three weeks; the other half were given certificates good for two months.

Surveyed at the start of the project, the group with the longer-dated gift certificates felt they had the better end of the deal. With two months' validity on their certificates, after all, they had more time to have their cake. But in the end, more of the people with the shorter-dated gift certificates ended up eating it. Surveyed afterwards, those with longer-dated certificates said they kept meaning to get to the cafe, but did not find the time.

Professors Shu and Gneezy found the same thing appeared to be true when it came to sightseeing. When you live in a place such as the UAE, you are less likely to go on a desert safari or skiing in the Mall of the Emirates than someone here for just a week. And your likelihood of doing any of these things increases only when you think you are about to leave. Very likely, residents will move on without ever having seen the sights at all.

What this demonstrates, the two researchers said, is that the longer you have to take advantage of something, the more likely you are to put it off. Confronted with an immediate deadline you are more likely to do it, whether it is something you don't enjoy such as, say, filing your expenses; or something you do enjoy, such as redeeming frequent fliers for a free trip. This appears to reinforce, they said, something called the resource-slack theory proposed in 2005 by two professors in North Carolina, Gal Zauberman and John Lynch. It is based on the observation that people tend to think they will have more spare time in the future. If a reward is more or less the same over time, people would prefer to consume it later when it does not interfere with what they are doing at the moment.

This fits with another observation that behavioural economists use to explain seemingly irrational behaviour among individuals. People tend to be overly optimistic, they say, believing that good things are more likely to happen to them than bad things. So they take risks such as smoking and running up credit cards debts, but procrastinate when it comes to saving money or going to the gym. Paradoxically, behavioural economists have found, we are also irrationally averse to losses. We would rather avoid a loss than pay for a potential windfall.

Thus investors find themselves selling stocks that are rising to avoid losing their gains, even it means forgoing even greater profits. Then they will hold on to stocks that have fallen below what they paid for them in the hope that the price recovers and they avoid a loss. We believe our lives will improve and that we'll have more time and money to enjoy them. Professors Zauberman and Lynch demonstrated that we are actually more optimistic about the former than the latter.

We are optimistic that our financial situation will improve; we're even more optimistic that we'll have more free time to enjoy it. In fact, the reverse appears to be true. In options, traders refer to something called "time decay". The longer the clock ticks towards an option's expiration, the less chance it will yield a profit, so its value decreases over time. The same goes for most frequent flier miles and gift certificates. They expire.

So, unfortunately, do people. Given the finite nature of life, the relative value of our time only increases as its supply diminishes. Conversely, the personal value of the things we own - our money, our gift certificates, our houses and yachts - is constantly diminishing along with the time we have left to enjoy them. Or, as The Specials sang: "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think; Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink;

The years go by, as quickly as a wink; Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think." @Email:warnold@thenational.ae

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Translated from the Spanish by Camilo A. Ramirez

Tuskar Rock Press (pp. 310)

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