Unless one is really focused on the luxury car -- and the driving experience -- all of that leather, muscle, nicer buttons, six ventilating fans under one's butt, the high-end speakers, the admiring glances and the nameplate that screams "I'm Hamptons bound" doesn't provide much over the long haul.
In other words, you may really love what that new luxury car does for you at the test-drive and in the days after you've purchased the new premium car -- but after a few weeks of ownership, the experience of driving pretty much becomes the visceral version of gazing at a traffic jam from an overpass: it's kind of all the same, whether econobox or Maserati.
That insight, or a more prosaic version of it, is the takeaway from a new study published in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology by Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and Jing Xu of Peking University. The study asked why it is difficult for people to learn from their own consumption experiences. Specifically, why is it that drivers of luxury cars believe that their car is a major source of joy, although their experience is usually what they would have in an economy car.
"Almost everyone assumes that driving a luxury car is more enjoyable than driving an economy car, but the reality is more complicated," said Schwarz, professor of marketing at Michigan's Ross School of Business, in a release on the study. "When drivers focus on their car while driving, a luxury car is indeed more fun than an economy car. But most of the time, the driver's mind is preoccupied with the mundane issues of daily life and the car makes little difference."
The researchers report that they gauged U-M students on the intensity of their experience of 10 positive or negative emotions while driving a BMW, a Honda Accord or a Ford Escort. What the students expected was that the intensity of their positive feelings would increase with the value of the car. And indeed, their experience pretty much matched their expectation.
The researchers then asked other survey respondents who were not students what kind of car they drive and then how they usually feel while driving it. Like the students, the greater the value of the vehicle, the more positive emotions.
But for both of these groups, the questions were preceded by identification with the vehicle. What if the vehicle is taken out of the equation? To test that, the scientists asked a new group to recall their most recent commute to work or the last time they drove their cars for at least 20 minutes, regardless of the nature of the trip.
They were then asked how they felt while driving during those specific trips. This time, the value of the car made absolutely no difference in drivers' reports of how they felt. That's because it was not until the end of the survey that they were asked what kind of car they drive (versus at the outset in the initial two groups.)
Said Schwarz, who is also a psychology professor and research professor at U-M's Institute for Social Research: "During the test drive of a new car, our attention is focused on the car, and the more luxurious it is, the better we feel while driving it. This experience is real, visceral and compelling." But, he says, people forget that after a few weeks of ownership, "it no longer captures all of our attention and other things will be on our minds while driving. As soon as that happens, we would feel just as well driving a cheaper alternative."