We’ve probably all had that experience where you see a beautiful ocean-front vacation advertisement and then you get to the resort and find out you’ll be looking at a parking lot for the next week. New research from the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business finds that when consumers think about and anticipate a product or service before they consume or experience it, they might not like it as much.

Gia Nardini, assistant professor of marketing, calls it mental simulation. In her new article, “How mental simulation evokes negative affective misforecasting of hedonic experiences,” published by the Journal of Consumer Marketing, Nardini and her fellow researcher Richard Lutz conduct four experiments.

Gia Nardini

In the first, Nardini asked 61 college students to fill out two surveys—one the week before spring break and one the week after. The study found that those who had plans for spring break, “mentally simulated” their time off and reported that their breaks weren’t as positive as they expected. The researchers call this having a greater negative affective misforecasting than those who did not have plans.

In the second study, 74 students were told they’d be going on a virtual tour of Machu Picchu. Before the tour, participants were shown photos of the destination, or of food (such as appetizers, entrees and desserts) associated with that destination. As predicted, the participants were more likely to mentally simulate Machu Picchu when viewing photos of the destination itself than when viewing pictures of food, and that mental simulation resulted in negative affective misforecasting.

The next experiment involved a food-tasting event. In this scenario, 141 students were randomly assigned to two groups. Half of the participants took mental breaks to think about the upcoming food-tasting event in detail, while the other half took breaks to think about different types of events, such as their birthday. Similar to the other outcomes, the participants who thought about the food-tasting event, forecasted greater positive affect from the experience than they received.

Finally, 225 students went on a virtual tour of Miami, Florida, or Sydney, Australia. Participants either saw photos of the cityscape associated with their upcoming virtual tour or they saw photos of food. The students who mentally simulated the extraordinary virtual tour experience displayed greater negative affective misforecasting than participants who did not mentally simulate the experience. Further, participants who mentally simulated the extraordinary virtual tour experience felt significantly less mindful than participants who did not mentally simulate it, and this less mindful processing mediated the effect of mental simulation on negative affective misforecasting.

“Across four studies, we found that mentally simulating an upcoming experience causes greater negative affective misforecasting,” Nardini said. “At least in part because it makes people process those experiences in a less mindful manner. Three lab studies and one field study showed the negative consequences of mental simulation for the enjoyment of hedonic experiences. Taken together, our findings suggest that mental simulation can cause people to anticipate more positive affective responses than they will actually have from an upcoming extraordinary hedonic experience and that mental simulation evokes less mindful processing.”