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The Good, the Bad and the Intuition: Our 'more fun equals less good' instincts affect purchases, food choices, even happiness, studies show

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The more fun something is, the less good it is for you. It is a simple statement with profound implications, if it rings true to you. And chances are it does. One way or another most of us have had the idea ingrained into our psyches since childhood.

The problem: It isn’t true.

Or at least it isn’t as true as we have been conditioned to believe, says Raj Raghunathan, assistant professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Raghunathan has been testing his “more fun equals less good” thesis and analyzing its implications for the purchasing decisions we make—big or small—from buying a car to picking up a bag of chips.

Raj Raghunathan
Dr. Raj Raghunathan’s ongoing research in consumer behavior recently earned him a $442,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award.

For Raghunathan, as with many marketing researchers, empirical studies are at the heart of his work. He and his co-authors have completed a series of tests that demonstrate the pervasive influence of the “more fun equals less good” intuition on the everyday decisions we make.

“People believe things can be serious, important or useful,” Raghunathan says. “Or they can be fun, enjoyable or hedonically pleasing. But they can’t be both.”

Putting it to the Test

In one test, Raghunathan invited friends to a party and asked them to try some mango lassi, a milkshake-type drink from Raghunathan’s native country of India. Half the guests were told the drink was “relatively unhealthy” and the other half were told it was “relatively healthy.” Later, after the guests had sampled the lassi, they were asked to evaluate the drink’s taste. The result: Those who rated the beverage higher in taste were the ones who thought they were drinking something relatively unhealthy.

“We seem to carry around a self-flagellating whip,” says Raghunathan, whose ongoing research in this area of consumer behavior recently earned him a $442,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. “If we are having fun, we must be doing something that is bad for us.”

The intuition holds true not only in our attitudes toward food but throughout a wide range of consumer products, Raghunathan has found.

In another study, subjects were shown a picture of one of two cameras that looked exactly alike except one was a bright blue color and the other was a dull gray. He then asked the participants to judge the quality of the image purportedly taken by the camera, which in reality was the same picture. The group that thought the picture had been taken by the blue camera—the “more fun” camera—judged the image to be poorer in quality than the group that thought the image was taken using the gray, “boring” camera.

For Raghunathan, this test—albeit a very simple one—goes a long way toward proving his thesis that people subscribe to the “more fun equals less good” intuition.

“There are no real alternative explanations for the pattern of results we obtained in this study with the cameras,” he says.

A similar experiment involved pictures of two cars, one a Kia Spectra and the other a BMW Mini Cooper. Raghunathan and his co-author asked study participants to rate the cars on “safety,” “value” and “practicality.” The results showed people assumed that the stylish and colorful Mini Cooper was inferior to the Kia on all three functional features. But in reality, the Mini Cooper is rated higher than the Kia in terms of safety, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts crash tests.

“These studies suggest that consumers will infer the functional level of a product even when information only about its hedonic qualities is provided,” Raghunathan says.

Why We Believe “More Fun Equals Less Good”

So how did this belief—that things that are more fun must be less good—get stuck in our heads? Raghunathan offers two possible explanations. 

The first is the way most parents react to basic behavior when raising their children. Raghunathan describes three common scenarios to illustrate his point.

People believe things can be serious, important or useful. Or they can be fun, enjoyable or hedonically pleasing. But they can't be both. Dr. Raj Raghunathan“Let’s say a mother tries to get her young child to abstain from engaging in an activity the child finds enjoyable, like eating candy or jumping up and down on the couch,” he says. “The mother is likely to portray these activities as being ‘bad’ for the child. She might say, ‘If you eat too much candy, your teeth will rot,’ or ‘Stop jumping on the couch! You are going to hurt yourself.’”

Raghunathan adds, “Likewise, imagine the child does not wish to engage in activities the mother thinks are healthy for the child, like eating broccoli or doing homework. The mother is likely to extol the virtues of these activities to the child.”

In the third scenario, the child either wishes to not engage in an activity the mother thinks is unhealthy, like drinking coffee, or wishes to engage in an activity the mother thinks is healthy, like eating popcorn.

“Here, the behavior is unlikely to elicit an intervention from the parent since the child is behaving in an appropriate fashion,” Raghunathan says. “Humans are less likely to react when things are going well.”

In the end, the combination of all three scenarios leads the child to make the following connections, “tastes bad equals good for me” and “tastes good equals bad for me.” But the association, “tastes good equals good for me,” is rarely made.

“Overall, a parent’s response to a child’s behavior is geared toward promoting the ‘more fun equals less good’ intuition,” Raghunathan says.

In fact, studies have shown that parents say no to their children quite often—usually more than even parents are aware. Raghunathan himself one day counted the number of times he said no to his two-year-old and was surprised at the number—a total of 39 times.

“I am trying to rein in my automatic tendency to intervene,” he says.

The second potential external source for the “more fun equals less good” phenomenon is religious traditions. The world’s major religions echo messages consistent with the intuition, Raghunathan says. 

In Hinduism (the tradition in which Raghunathan was raised), enlightenment is said to be possible only through relinquishing worldly desires—one cannot have both. (Raghunathan recalls a childhood moment of play when his grandmother told him, “You will have to pay for that laughter with tears some day.”)

In Islam, spiritual progress is said to be expedited through self-deprivation, such as fasting during Ramadan. The Protestant work ethic, which is based on Christian tenets, holds that necessities must be given greater priority over luxuries.

“Religions worldwide appear to make a distinction between stimuli that are of a ‘worthy’ and ‘work-related’ nature and those that are of a ‘trivial and ‘fun-related’ nature,” Raghunathan says.

Which camera takes the better photo? Gray camera
Blue camera

In one of Dr. Raghunathan’s studies, subjects were shown a picture of one of two cameras that looked exactly alike except one was a bright blue color and the other was a dull gray. He then asked the participants to judge the quality of the image purportedly taken by the camera, which in reality was the same picture.

The group that thought the picture had been taken by the blue camera—the “more fun” camera—judged the image to be poorer in quality than the group that thought the image was taken using the gray, “boring” camera.

Which camera did you choose?

“The end result is that even if the true correlation between hedonics and functionality in a product were nonsignificant, social messages and religious tenets conspire to instruct us that they are negatively correlated,” Raghunathan says.

Back to Business

Returning to the competitive world of business, Raghunathan says the “more fun equals less good” intuition should be on the minds of both the sellers and the buyers.

On the supply side, Raghunathan says a company offering a product positioned as being superior on the hedonic dimension should ensure that the inferred functionality of the product is not compromised.

“A cell phone portrayed as being stylish and attractive in an advertisement is at risk of being inferred to be functionally inferior,” he explains.

Intriguingly, Raghunathan’s research suggests the opposite as well. Marketers may benefit from extolling the lack of aesthetics or pleasure to be found in their product in order to appeal to an audience interested primarily in functionality.

“Such a strategy could explain the success of Listerine, which might be inferred to be less effective if it did not sting,” Raghunathan says. “It may also underlie the success of Volvo cars and Dell computers. Both have thrived despite less-than-thrilling aesthetics.”

For consumers, Raghunathan thinks we all should be aware of the potentially pervasive and powerful influence of the “more fun equals less good intuition” on our decision-making and attempt to correct for its influence.

“This may be easier said than done,” Raghunathan says, “because the influence of the intuition appears to occur implicitly. Even those who reported explicitly disagreeing with the intuition made choices as if they believed in it. That suggests that the influence of the intuition is taking place outside of one’s control.”

Some anecdotal evidence in the context of food is consistent with this possibility, Raghunathan says. In the early 1990s, McDonald’s introduced a low-fat burger called the McLean. Although the burger was preferred to ones that contained more fat in blind taste tests, it was a dud with consumers. Why?

“By portraying the burger as a healthy alternative,” Raghunathan says, “McDonald’s may have turned off the typical burger consumer, who wishes to focus on the enjoyment of the meal, rather than on the health consequences. Therefore, McDonald’s might have achieved greater financial success and consumer welfare by deliberately concealing the healthiness of the burger!”

Weighty Matters

Lately, Raghunathan has focused on our complicated relationship with food, and he has a series of studies in the works having to do with weight loss and the “more fun equals less good” intuition. In one, he and his co-author are examining whether believing in the “unhealthy equals tasty” intuition can affect weight-loss goals.

Presumably, people who believe “unhealthy equals tasty” use the intuition as a rule of thumb when deciding what to eat and what to avoid, Raghunathan says. Those who believe in the intuition and want to watch their weight would want to avoid things that taste good, so that they can lose weight or maintain it.

“What we appear to be finding, however, is that belief in the intuition may actually be counter-productive to the goal of losing weight,” he says. “In an Internet study we recently conducted, we found the greater the faith in the intuition, the higher the chance of being overweight, and the greater the likelihood of not meeting weight-loss goals.”

Subscribing to the intuition tinges our hedonic pursuits with a little bit of guilt or unhappiness. This erodes a bit of the pleasure we can derive from life. Dr. Raj RaghunathanThis may be because dieters already feel deprived. Believing their only “healthy” choice to be eating untasty foods, dieters may not be able to maintain the discipline or will need to change their eating habits.

These preliminary results are being followed up with a more complex study.

“We are currently conducting an experiment in which we will put participants interested in losing weight in one of two conditions: one in which we tell them that the ‘more fun equals less good’ intuition is not true, and another in which we tell them that it is,” Raghunathan says. “Participants in both groups will be told to use the information we give them as general rules to use when considering what to eat.”

Based on the earlier experiment, Raghunathan expects to find that those who were advised the “unhealthy equals tasty” intuition is false will be more likely to meet their weight-loss goals.

“Such a finding will suggest that one factor that might help in the fight against obesity may involve unlearning a belief that is well ingrained in us—that ‘unhealthy equals tasty,’” he says.

“Look at the French or the Japanese,” Raghunathan says. “In both cultures, tastiness is associated with healthiness—and not with unhealthiness. Perhaps that’s one reason why people in those countries have generally managed to stay trim.”

In looking overall at our “more fun equals less good” intuition, Raghunathan says more work needs to be done.

“I’m at the stage of showing this effect exists,” he says. “And that it is powerful enough to affect our consumption decisions.”

As Raghunathan continues his work with more controlled experiments, he hopes to prove that his “educated speculations” about intuition are true and that they have real effects on our emotional well-being. In the meantime, he cautions against subscribing to the “more fun equals less good” intuition.

“Subscribing to the intuition tinges our hedonic pursuits with a little bit of guilt or unhappiness,” he says. “This erodes a bit of the pleasure we can derive from life.”

BY Rob Meyer

PHOTO of Dr. Raghunathan: Sasha Haagensen

BANNER photo: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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