You know how the Germans have words for sentiments that the English language lacks? ‘Schadenfreude’ is the famous one, but have you ever heard of the concept of ‘Vorfreude’? Vorfreude in German is the joy of anticipation, and a common saying is “Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude”, which means the joy of anticipation is the best joy.
Research by Bowan Ruan and his colleagues shows that there is a lot of truth in that – at least when it comes to loyalty cards.
They recruited hundreds of volunteers to participate in experiments involving loyalty cards of the kind you get in your local coffee shop. You know, the ones where you collect, say, 8 stamps and once you have filled a card with stamps you get a free coffee. What they wanted to know is when these loyalty cards were the most valuable to consumers.
Economic theory dictates that rational beings should value a loyalty card with 3 stamps higher than a loyalty card with 2 stamps, etc. The most valuable loyalty card is the one with all 8 stamps because that is worth the same as a cup of coffee.
But of course, if in the year 2023, you believe that people are rational and economic theory based on rational behaviour describes reality, nobody can help you anymore. You must either have lived under a rock for the last 50 years or be an economist who built his career on rational economic theory.
The chart below shows how bad people felt when they were confronted with a situation where they collected stamps on a loyalty card but then lost the loyalty card. As you can see, the loss hurts more the more stamps the card had, but it does not peak at a filled card with 8 (out of 8) stamps but with 7 stamps. When people had a card that was just one stamp away from a free coffee the joy of anticipation was big and losing that card hurt more than losing a card that had all 8 stamps. In a sense, when people lost a fully stamped card, they had at least the feeling of accomplishment to go on. They might not get a free coffee, but they could at least rest on the knowledge that they accomplished the task.
Feeling of regret when losing a loyalty card
Source: Ruan et al. (2023)
So much for the regret of losing a loyalty card but let us turn the experiment around and assume you have a loyalty card with either 7 or 8 stamps (out of 8). Someone approaches you and offers to buy the card from you. How much money would the stranger have to pay before you would be willing to sell the loyalty card?
The answer of the average volunteer is shown in the chart below. Loyalty cards that were one stamp away from being completed were more valuable to consumers than completed loyalty cards. Again, the sense of achievement when you have the completed loyalty card is something that nobody can take away from you and the card is thus less valuable to you than a card that you still must complete where you can feel the joy of anticipation of buying your last coffee to complete the card.
Willingness to accept money for loyalty cards
Source: Ruan et al. (2023)
How can you use this to make money? I have no idea. But I can give you some advice on how to use it to improve your life. If you are planning a big event like a wedding, make sure you start planning for it well ahead of time.
I remember when my wife and I planned for our wedding, the joy of planning everything and letting our friends and family participate in our plans months before it happened was almost as good as the actual wedding day. By thinking about the wedding, we created that joy of anticipation, and the closer we got to the wedding day, the bigger this joy grew.
Now, most of us don’t get married too often in life, but the same is true for vacations. One of the worst things you can do is spring a surprise trip on your loved one (or a surprise birthday party for that matter). You are robbing them of the joy of anticipation. Much better to sit down months in advance and start thinking about where you want to go on vacation, settling on a specific location, and then booking flights, hotels, etc. This way you actively create this joy of anticipation that will grow as the date of the vacation approaches. And trust me (or trust the research described above) if your vacation then sucks, it won’t feel as bad if you had a long time to anticipate it.