Not too long ago, I decided to replace my old smartphone. As I placed the order for a new one from a Seattle based e-commerce company, I felt a strange sense of uneasiness and impatience. I decided to do what any scientifically curious person in a predicament would.

I googled it.

There it was on Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary for slang words and phrases: “Pre-Parcel Anxiety".

“The nervous impatience experienced when waiting for a parcel or package you’ve ordered to be delivered. Often accompanied by frequent glances at the front door for signs of the courier driver when you hear any audible or visual queues of their presence."

But why does this benign vagary of the mind occur? Digging deep into behavioural economics, I discovered that the endowment effect could help us make sense of it.

A term coined by Nobel laureate Richard Thaler, the endowment effect is a cognitive bias that transpires when individuals value something that they already own more than something that they do not yet own. Once we purchase a product, we start to experience an innate sense of ownership, end up giving more value to it and start envisioning all the ways in which it would give us joy or improve our lives.

While shopping at brick-and-mortar stores, the time gap between the actual purchase and the use of the product is negligible. On the other hand, when we purchase a product online, our mind experiences a sense of virtual ownership, and the endowment effect kicks in. This tension between experiencing a heightened sense of entitlement for a product and a delay of a few days in physical ownership makes our mind act in a manner that seems irrational.

Owning a specific brand helps consumers express and build their own self-image. Management psychologist M. Joseph Sirgy’s self-congruity theory suggests that consumer behaviour is partially determined by the similarity between the consumers’ self-image and their perception of the brand’s image. Positive self-congruity, the scenario where brand image and the self-image resemble each other, enhances the endowment effect. This is especially lucrative for online retailers who, by mining user data, are able to send unique targeted advertisements to each potential buyer to achieve greater positive self-congruity than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Tracking the whereabouts of the order through the online merchant’s website doesn’t help neutralize pre-parcel anxiety. Au contraire, by giving us more information about the package, it gives impetus to the endowment effect.

The uneasiness after placing the order was also coupled with a high level of excitement. As the delivery man rang the doorbell, the euphoria had reached untenable levels. I unboxed my phone, admired its stunning partial glass back that a certain Mountain View, California-based company had done an exemplary job with.

But there was still an unanswered question. I was more than satisfied with my purchase, but the excitement had subdued. Shouldn’t the joy of physically possessing something be greater than the joy of merely anticipating its arrival?

It didn’t make sense to me, till I explored another branch of social science: evolutionary psychology.

By virtue of natural selection, we are programmed to perform certain acts such as having sex or eating, acts that take our genes forward to subsequent generations. Hence, pleasure is just an evolutionary tool to get us to make an effort to execute these acts. But pleasure can’t last forever because if it doesn’t recede, we wouldn’t go after it again. For instance, our body needs to chase the pleasure of eating every day, or it wouldn’t get its dose of food for survival. Biologically, pleasure needs to be fleeting and leave us repeatedly underwhelmed after we’ve achieved it. Thus, the pleasure derived from the anticipation of an event (using a new phone in my case) is always greater than the pleasure derived from the event itself.

In a study by Read Montague, a neuroscientist, it was shown that the mere sight of a Coke label was sufficient to activate the brain’s pleasure centres by elevating the levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. According to Robert Wright, an evolutionary psychologist, this pre-sip elevation of dopamine is always much greater than the post-sip spike. Wright explains: “The drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise—or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgement that there was some overpromising. To the extent that you bought the promise—anticipated greater pleasure than would be delivered by the consumption itself—you have been, if not deluded, at least misled."

So behavioural economics cleared my doubts about pre-parcel anxiety and natural selection perfectly explained my varying levels of excitement over the process of purchasing a phone, but is there any merit in being aware of our cognitive biases and illusions?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I believe what Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist guru, says about mental afflictions is true for all kinds of human behavioural aberrations. That at the end of the day it boils down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of them or the discomfort of being ruled by them.

Archit Puri is a senior associate at the Centre for Civil Society.

Close