hedonic-treadmill

What Is The Hedonic Treadmill? The Hedonic Treadmill In A Nutshell

The hedonic treadmill was first described in a 1971 essay entitled Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society. The authors described a tendency for people to keep a stable baseline level of happiness despite positive or negative external events. The hedonic treadmill, therefore, is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to a baseline level of happiness, irrespective of what happens to them.

Understanding the hedonic treadmill

However, the concept itself was alluded two almost 200 years earlier by philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his 1754 Discourse on Inequality, he wrote: “Since these conveniences by becoming habitual had almost entirely ceased to be enjoyable, and at the same time degenerated into true needs, it became much more cruel to be deprived of them than to possess them was sweet, and men were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them.”

No one can escape the hedonic treadmill because it impacts nearly every aspect of life. One person may dream of buying a house or starting a new career and fantasize about the happiness these events will bring. However, when these dreams become a reality, the happiness is neither as sustained nor as intense as they envisioned.

Note that the baseline level of happiness varies from person to person. While most people are happy most of the time, some individuals will default to a more neutral or negative baseline.

Real-world examples of the hedonic treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is most often associated with high impact positive and negative events, including:

  • Winning the lottery – winning a large sum of money is a happy experience initially, but the individual tends to revert to their previous baseline after the novelty wears off. Some lottery winners may find their happiness decrease because of the way money changes their relationships with family and friends.
  • Becoming an amputee – those who lose a limb in an accident or for some other reason experience a tremendous amount of physical and emotional pain. Though they are left with a permanent disability, most return to their previous happiness level.
  • Finding a new partner – many attribute falling in love to be one of the most enjoyable experiences in life. However, two people in a relationship quickly become habituated to each other and may experience negative emotions as a result.

The hedonic treadmill in marketing

The hedonic treadmill is one of the main reasons a brand has to deliver new and different versions of its core message to maintain customer engagement over time.

For instance, American insurer Allstate launched a series of advertising campaigns where the company mascot, Mr. Mayhem, portrayed several different disasters that might require the target audience to make an insurance claim. Each disaster comprised a single episode, with each episode designed to provide a new, unexpected, and novel way of communicating Allstate’s brand message.

The hedonic treadmill also impacts product development. After the initial success of Angry Birds began to wane, game developers had to diversify and start releasing subsequent versions to secure the attention of the target audience. Stuffed toys and other physical merchandise were also sold to maintain some degree of novelty in the brand.

Key takeaways:

  • The hedonic treadmill is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to a baseline level of happiness, irrespective of what happens to them.
  • The hedonic treadmill is most associated with high impact positive and negative events such as winning the lottery, becoming an amputee, or entering into a new relationship.
  • In business, the hedonic treadmill encourages businesses to develop new and different versions of their core brand message to keep customers engaged.

Related Business Concepts

heuristic
As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.
recognition-heuristic
The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.
representativeness-heuristic
The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.
take-the-best-heuristic
The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.
biases
The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman since 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.
bundling-bias
The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.
barnum-effect
The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.
nudge-theory
Nudge theory argues positive reinforcement and indirect suggestion is an effective way to influence the behavior and decision making of individuals or groups. Nudge theory was an idea first popularized by behavioral economist Richard Thaler and political scientist Cass Sunstein. However, the pair based much of their theory on heuristic research conducted by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s.
bullwhip-effect
The bullwhip effect describes the increasing fluctuations in inventory in response to changing consumer demand as one moves up the supply chain. Observing, analyzing, and understanding how the bullwhip effect influences the whole supply chain can unlock important insights into various parts of it.
einstellung-effect
Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).
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