Haste not want not
The price we pay for efficiency

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Once upon a time, handwritten letters took days or even months to arrive in a recipient’s mailbox. Now, emails are sent and received almost instantaneously via internet connection. There is no doubt that connectivity has made our lives more efficient than ever. But an overemphasis on speed has bred a generation of ‘right now’ consumers.

Many of us are willing to pay more in exchange for expedited delivery of goods or services — but could this phenomenon imply that we have grown impatient as a society? In an attempt to find an answer to that question, I was struck by how excessive exposure to fast food symbols has translated into radical shifts in consumer behaviour, specifically in fast fashion.

Living in fast food culture

Fast food is an iconic symbol of a modern lifestyle that values efficiency and immediate satisfaction. Obesity, diabetes, and a heightened risk of cardiovascular disorders are some well-known examples of the health hazards associated with overconsumption of fast food. But there is far less attention directed toward studying the effect of fast food on other areas of life. We often intentionally save time that we would usually spend on our daily routines, such as meals, to make room for other activities. Counterintuitively though, data collected from the US indicates that there has been no proportional growth in happiness corresponding to the increase in leisure time over the past 50 years.

Based on existing literature about behavioural priming, U of T researchers even suggested that the presence of fast-food symbols, like imagery, could condition people to display time-saving behaviours. They conducted a series of experiments to test the hypothesis. One of their experiments measured impatience by changes in participants’ reading speed: although participants were under no time pressure in the experiment, their reading speed accelerated if they were exposed to fast-food symbols.

Furthermore, the studies showed that exposure to fast-food-related concepts impacts our decision making. Researchers tested this theory by dividing a group of undergraduate students into two cohorts. One cohort was asked to recall memories of the last time they ate fast food, while the control group was told to remember their most recent visit to a grocery store. Then, they were asked to fill out a marketing survey that asked them to rate the desirability of a set of products. Students who were primed by fast-food concepts preferred time-saving products over less efficient-sounding alternatives. For example, four-slice toasters were more popular than single-slice toasters.

The survey conducted in the experiment shows that induced desire for efficiency had become the most prominent factor influencing these consumers’ choices. As time efficiency dominates our choices as consumers, many traditional business models have had to adjust their course to accommodate our preference for speed. The fast fashion business model, for example, responds to rises in ‘consumer impatience’ by radically changing the traditional cycle of fashion design. Instead of releasing collections twice a year, fast fashion companies introduce new products into stores continuously throughout the entirety of a typical season.

Fast fashion design processes allow companies to keep up with new and unpredictable trends by rapidly releasing items that directly respond to consumers’ preferences. According to research by Felipe Caro and Victor Martínez de Albéniz, such a ‘satiation model’ primes already impatient consumers to shift away from fashion retailers that “do not refresh their assortments often enough.”

When efficiency becomes costly

When faced with an enticing markdown on a shirt that I’ve been wanting to purchase, I struggle with a metaphoric tug of war between the decision ‘to buy or not to buy.’ In fact, research on time-related decisions often centres around the decision to save. In the act of saving money, we deliberately postpone the gratification we’d otherwise receive from spending, by choosing instead to plan for our future financial needs.

One U of T experiment investigated whether fast food-induced impatience harms one’s personal financial situation. The results showed that participants primed with symbols of fast food were much more willing to accept a smaller payment that researchers offered them right away instead of waiting for a larger payment in a week’s time. However, the desire for immediate gratification was much less noticeable in control conditions. This experiment clearly shows that our economic interests are at risk by our preference for time-saving behaviours.

Fast fashion companies take advantage of the psychology of impatience of their customers by developing a system called ‘quick response.’ Retailers create a sense of scarcity by creating strategic inventory displays to attract consumers to continually buy items that are updated on an ongoing basis.

Retailers also deter strategic buying with ‘price commitments.’ Retailers skillfully fix the prices of fashion items to deter consumers from delaying purchases until events where stores are liquidating stock and prices are marked down. Companies have also found more efficient ways of developing products with shorter lifespans, which encourages unnecessary buying.

One might argue that frequent shopping trips could amount to the experience of “smelling the roses,” but it seems like the opposite is true. Fast fashion thrives on unpredictable changes in consumer fashion tastes. Rapid changes in and rapid gratification of temporary fashion preferences drives already nascent trends to become even shorter in duration.

Ultimately, it was our unpredictability as consumers that led to the rise of the fast-fashion business model. It seems that we harbour a habitual tendency to constantly search for novelty, which perpetuates a culture of impatience and impulsive buying.

Our pursuit for novelty and low-priced fashion trends, if left unchecked, can evolve into financially unsustainable buying habits. Fast fashion retail encourages a wasteful culture in which quality and craftsmanship are undervalued. We must try to be conscious of the various negative consequences that our passion for fashion brings.

We’re unable to smell the roses

Someone checking messages, scrolling through memes, and eating a hamburger simultaneously is not an unusual sight in fast food restaurants. Living in the moment — the here and now — often leads to multitasking, which prevents us from savouring the small pleasures in life.

One study conducted several experiments to examine whether exposure to fast food culture reduces the happiness that people derive from pleasurable experiences. The first experiment looked at whether differences in food packaging — food presented in ready-to-go branded packaging or ceramic tableware — influenced people’s enjoyment or ability to appreciate images of beautiful scenery. Participants were shown a picture of nature, but one group of participants had been primed with exposure to fast-food packaging, and the other had not. Afterwards, the fast-food group had lower ratings of self-reported happiness. As part of the same study, researchers also ran an experiment exploring whether exposure to fast food affects individuals’ ability to savour experiences. They asked participants to listen to a melody, using self-reported impatience and the subjectively perceived length of the melody to measure whether they perceived the experience as longer and therefore less enjoyable. This trend was apparent in a follow-up experiment that also revealed a significant decrease in positive emotional response to an excerpt of music for participants primed with fast food.

The idea that small pleasures offer a reliable path to happiness is an established theory. Just as impatience stealthily erodes our appreciation of art, we seldom consciously pay attention to how these seemingly insignificant moments of enjoyment in life have an impact on our happiness.

So, in the future, it’s probably best to take a moment to weigh your wants and needs on an honest scale before you decide to click on the banner of a ‘sitewide flash sale.’