Understanding Pleasures: Source, Experience, and Remembrances

Jordan L. Le Bel, McGill University
Laurette DubT, McGill University
ABSTRACT - This paper presents the findings from in-depth interviews focused on expressions and recollections of consumers’ daily hedonic experiences and their underlying processes. Temporal framing and mental imagery emerged as the core of the experience and recollections of pleasure. Beyond the actual experience, consumers derive pleasure from anticipating and reminiscing about pleasant events and are able to identify precise aspects of their experiences as it unfolds. Our findings also reveal that multiple sources of pleasure can underlie a single hedonic experience and that the salience of each of these sources can shift over time. Suggestions for future research and managerial implications are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Jordan L. Le Bel and Laurette DubT (1998) ,"Understanding Pleasures: Source, Experience, and Remembrances", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 176-180.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 176-180


Jordan L. Le Bel, McGill University

Laurette DubT, McGill University


This paper presents the findings from in-depth interviews focused on expressions and recollections of consumers’ daily hedonic experiences and their underlying processes. Temporal framing and mental imagery emerged as the core of the experience and recollections of pleasure. Beyond the actual experience, consumers derive pleasure from anticipating and reminiscing about pleasant events and are able to identify precise aspects of their experiences as it unfolds. Our findings also reveal that multiple sources of pleasure can underlie a single hedonic experience and that the salience of each of these sources can shift over time. Suggestions for future research and managerial implications are discussed.


A recent focus of consumer research has been on hedonic experiences, activities that are engaged in and pursued essentially for the pleasure they ring (Hirschman & Holbrook, 1982). Consequently, a growing number of researchers have started to explore the emotional dynamics of consumption. Those advances notwithstanding, pleasure, the cornerstone of hedonic consumption, remains an elusive and complex concept. A quick look at its measurement will illustrate how different conceptualizations have led to insightful, if fragmented findings.

Two approaches to the measurement of pleasure have been taken. The molar perspective views pleasure as an an overall judgment. Characteristic of this approach is the concept of experience utility introduced by Kahneman and his collaborators (Kahneman & Snell, 1992; Varey & Kahneman, 1992) and which combines both the quality and intensity of an hedonic experience. Within this line of research, the mechanics of information processing and retrospective judgments have been extensively investigated. Others working within the molecular perspective have explored the phenomenology of hedonic experiences (e.g., Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf, 1988; Arnould & Price, 1993). These studies have yielded unique insights into the kaleidoscope of emotions and network of social relationships underlying hedonic consumption, especially in service encounters. The present paper reports on a qualitative study designed to gain such rich and diversified insights into the experience of pleasure and the way it evolves and is remembered over time.


A series in-depth, one-on-one, unstructured interviews were conducted over a period of eight weeks with customers of a newly opened coffee shop located within a large bookstore in Montreal, Canada. Fifteen interviews were conducted (12 women and 3 men, aged between 18 and 53). Six interviewees were white-collar, five were students (two undergraduates, three graduate), two were blue-collar workers, one (male) was retired, one (female) was a professional artist. Interviews lasted up to 90 minutes, most averaging around 60. Interviews were conducted in the interviewee’s native language (French or English), and took place on site with the authorization of management.

Interviews were focused on expressions and recollections of consumers’ daily hedonic experiences and their underlying processes. A typical interview started by exploring a respondent’s reasons for visiting the cafT and the pleasures found therein. Then, interviews generally moved away from coffee shop pleasures to gravitate around other pleasant activities. The choice of the setting and interview procedure was motivated by a desire to gather naturalistic evidence on everyday pleasures of personal relevance to each interviewee. Throughout, interviewees’ answers were used to probe deeper into the components and processes of hedonic experiences.

Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim, and data coding proceeded in two stages (Lofland and Lofland, 1995). First, sentences were dissected into units as small as possible, sometimes into single words. These units were coded as close to interviewees’ original ideas as possible, at each step asking: "what is this word or unit a case of?" Thus, distinct categories and content codes emerged across the corpus of transcripts. Second, transcripts were analyzed for relationships between categories. Categories were collapsed, codes were refined, and patterns surfaced, leading to the model presented next. When appropriate, and with the chief concern of preserving interviewees’ ideas faithfully, concepts from existing theory were used to label the components of the model. In the next section quotes are identified in brackets by the interview and paragraph number.


The corpus of transcripts tells numerous stories about interviewees’ daily encounters wth and relationship to pleasure. These stories are summarized and presented in Figure 1. The first theme pertains to the sources of pleasure: where does pleasure come from? along what lines does common experience distinguish between different types of pleasure? The second theme deals more directly with the experience of pleasure and the opinions and beliefs expressed by interviewees about the dynamics of pleasure. Finally, the third theme concerns remembrances of pleasure, a window on the recollection process of past pleasures.

Sources of Pleasure

Not all pleasures are alike. There is no shortage of taxonomies to describe the various ways in which pleasures differ. Since Greek Antiquity, delineating the differences between kinds of pleasures has been a major preoccupation for philosophers and sociologists alike (see Bailey, 1928; Beebee-Center 1932; Gaskin, 1995; for a recent typology see Tiger, 1992). But what are the distinctions that people themselves draw between the types of pleasure they engage in on a daily basis? Consideration of the list of pleasures discussed during our interviews revealed that interviewees distinguished three types or sources of pleasure. These sources (left side of Fig. 1) are not mutually exclusive, and cases of pleasure associated with a single source may be difficult to document. Still, some pleasures depend on one source more than others and the nature of a hedonic experience depends on the subtle combination of these sources.

Sensorial Pleasures. Our senses being our chief point of contact with the physical world, it is no surprise that interviewees’ accounts of pleasure should have started with a description of its sensory dimension. A favorite restaurant is first described as "dark, no bright fluorescent lights, simple decor, red and white tablecloth (...)" [int. 7, par. 81], a particular coffee shop is preferred because "it’s colorful, not too wild; it has the best coffee, and I have things to look at." [int. 2, par. 20 & 30], admiring the foliage is an important pleasure from mountain hikes [int. 3, par. 108], and an oyster party is an occasion for every senses to be stimulated [int. 4, par. 26 & 28]. Thus, sensory descriptors appear to be an automatic way to express what brings pleasure. Some activities or part thereof, by the special importance of sensory input, can be labeled sensorial pleasures.



Social Pleasures. Interviewees also often cited the pleasure they get from being with others, especially with friends, as a chief reason for engaging in some activities. "People stopped talking. We, as humans, have forgotten how to communicate and yet we are essentially social animals. This is the only coffee shop I know of where people are not afraid to share a table. That’s why I come here." [int. 12, par. 2]. Similarly, a desire to strengthen social ties is Bill’s motivation to entertain: "I love to entertain. It’s being around my friends. Taking time to enjoy their company and being able to give." [Int-10, par. 56]. And sometimes it is not the actual so much as the possible contact that matters: "Well, it’s the possibility of meeting someone, of being able to socialize. I mean I don’t come here to meet people, some days I may not even talk or so much look at anyone. But it’s nice to know that the potential for social contact is there, should you wish to have it. It’s promises." [int 13, par. 6].

Psychological Pleasures. This last category encompasses two distinct pleasures: emotional and cognitive. Emotional pleasures arise from positive emotional responses which can be experienced in broad, diffuse feelings: "I just saw the latest Barbara Streisand movie last weekend. For sure, it wasn’t like a deep [she emphasizes "deep"] foreign movie. I mean it’s just nice entertainment." [int. 11, par. 24]. By contrast, cognitive pleasures involve intellectual stimulation and effort with matching consequences or rewards. For example, "flipping" through magazines was for Bill a way to stayinformed of new trends and to learn of new products. Similarly, the "ritualized reading" he performs every morning (which includes "The Economist"), although more demanding, is still a cherished daily pleasure.

It may be difficult to assign exclusive membership to anyone of these three sources for any given hedonic activity, and yet interviewees themselves had clear opinions about the nature of their pleasures. For instance, Peter readily admits that "Sex, now sex for me is all up here [he points to his head], it’s mostly psychological." [int. 13, par. 18]. Or consider Frances’ belief about the pleasure she gets from drawing, an activity she frequently conducts at the coffee shop: "But that kind of pleasure is really a spirit" [int. 12, par. 20], "you try to capture it and it’s gone." [int. 12, par. 22]. Now, observing Frances’ arrival at the coffee shop reveals an intricate and oft-practiced ritual (getting her coffee, placing her chair just so, lining up her pens and material, loosening her scarf, etc.) which precisely aims to capture that spirit.

Experience and Dynamics of Pleasure

The second theme to emerge from interviews concerns the actual experience of pleasure and its dynamics, captured by the content codes shown in the mid section of Figure 1.

Temporal Framing. In interviewees’ own accounts, pleasure is often framed in terms of temporal distance. Two aspects of temporal framing were uncovered from our interviews. The first aspect refers to the pleasure of anticipating and reminiscing about pleasant experiences (c.f. Elster & Loewenstein, 1992). Sheila’s upcoming trip to Paris illustrates this: "The first thing I look forward to is getting on that plane in first class and sipping a glass of wine. I actually sit there at work and when things get hectic I think about that." [int. 2, par. 72]. The pleasure derived from anticipating and reminiscing about an event accounts for the fact that the pleasure from the actual experience per se can be much smaller than the total pleasure associated with that experience.

A second aspect of temporal framing is the progression or unfolding of the actual experience, a feature often preserved in the manner interviewees discussed their own pleasurable experiences. Sheila’s anticipation of her trip to Paris also served to map out the progression of the event in minute details. Similarly, memories of pleasant events can also capture this feature: "I thought about it all week long, I could even taste the oysters. Then on Saturday morning, I was almost sad because it was going to be over soon. But I wasn’t disappointed, it was fun and now it’s a happy memory." [int. 4, par. 28-30].

Together, these two aspects of temporal framing form an interesting dynamic. From a far temporal distance, pleasures are considered in a global perspective and described in broad general terms. As distance narrows and the pleasant event nears, the perspective becomes more local with precise references to specific pleasure-inducing stimuli. Julie’s description of a recent two-day "girls outing" tells of a long anticipation experienced in diffuse feelings: "I could see it, it was gonna be so much fun, I really was looking forward to it." As the event neared, her perspective became increasingly focused: the day of departure she admits that "I could see it in my head. I was seeing us getting ready, in the car, listening to music, chatting about work and stuff." [int. 4, par. 32].

Individual and Contextual Differences. When asked what brings us pleasure, most of us would likely answer: "It’s very personal" or "It depends." True to form, our interviews revealed many idiosyncratic and context-dependent differences between the kinds of pleasures interviewees sought and the way they went about seeking it. Individual differences account for the fact that the same activity can be pleasant to different people for different reasons: while "flipping" trough magazines was an almost intellectual pleasure for Bill, it was a different kind of pleasure for Sophie who admits to being simply turned on "by ads with skin" [int. 15, par. 40]. Contextual differences, too, can influence people’s hedonic consumption behavior. For example, for Julie and her boyfriend, the desire for a romantic dinner almost always narrows the consideration set to a single, "preferred" restaurant, but when romance is not in the air, a similar automatic choice process takes them directly to another "preferred" restaurant. This sort of association or choice heuristic is revealing of the contextual nature of pleasure.

Goal Directedness. This content code captures the fact that some pleasures are planned while others spontaneous. For some, planning brings security and greater pleasure, especially through anticipation: referring to her trip, Julie admits that "there was a sort of security in knowing that in a month I was going to Quebec with my friends, like I had a point in the future to fix on. I need some reference point, but I also like surprises." [par. 38 & 58]. Not only does planning bring security but it provides opportunities for the pleasures of anticipation: "Like, if Nick says: 'Let’s go there tonight’". The time it’ll take to get there isn’t enough. It’s not enough time for me to savor things in my head, I need time to play with ideas in my head." [int. 4, par. 46 & 50]. On the other hand, some pleasures are best experienced spontaneously as "you don’t have time to form expectations, you can’t be disappointed." [int 4, par 46].

Habituation. Previous research found that people hold strong beliefs in the dynamics of liking, especially in the process of habituation (Snell, Gibbs and Varey, 1995). Our interviews uncovered evidence for both the operation of and beliefs in this process. In expressing her preference for a certain coffee shop, Shelley demonstrates a belief that liking grows with repeated exposure: "I guess, since I’ve been going there for a while, I must like it, it must feel more comfortable." [int. 9, par. 10]. In the opposite direction, Bill admits that he "can’t stand going at a Van Houtte anymore. It’s so plain. I’ve just moved on to the stimulus offered by Second Cup." [int. 10, par. 46]. Thus, "habituation" has the potential to generate opposite hedonic consequences across individuals.

Prescriptions. Prescription refers to prohibitions or authorizations, even approval or disapproval of one’s pleasures. For instance, when visiting the coffee shop-bookstore where the interview took place, Bill likes to "look at magazines or newspapers that I would never look at elsewhere. It’s not that they’re free, it’s just that I am in a relaxation mode and I give myself permission to look through magazines that I would not have had time or taken the time to read otherwise." [int. 10, par. 16]. Similarly, Peter articulates both a belief in habituation and disapproval when he admits that "pornography, that’s another story. I’ve got to watch out for that, it’s addictive." [int. 13, par. 18].

Mental Imagery. The vividness and image-like nature of interviewees’ accounts suggest that mental images are more than a system or strategy to process information (MacInnes and Price, 1987), but are an integral feature of hedonic consumption experiences (Hirschman & Holbrook, 1982). Among the features of mental images captured in our interviews are their specificity and function. "Specificity" refers to the detailed and multisensorial content of these images: for Anne, "it [a favorite Greek restaurant] reminds us of our honeymoon in Greece. For me, it’s tranquil and pleasant, it takes me back to a little restaurant by the beach. It’s white and blue, and the beautiful sky around it, and it smells of the ocean and the music and wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen." [int. 7, par. 87]. Clearly, mental images, in varying degrees of specificity, belong to every phase of hedonic experiences, from early anticipation to rerospective memories.

"Function" refers to the role of mental imagery in the experience of pleasure. The functions appearing in our transcripts include: decision making (visualizing alternatives and solutions), escapism (voluntary imaging in anticipation or memory), and expectations (images used as a standard of comparison). For example, to choose the right buttons for the garments she makes, one interviewee tries to visualize the finish product; to overcome his lack of confidence in his cooking abilities, another visualizes the completed dish; and we’ve already cited daydreaming about a trip to Paris as a source of escape and expectation-setting.

Remembrances of Pleasure

This right panel of Figure 1 was added after consideration of interviewees’ progression through their own accounts of pleasure. Two features of the recollection process are addressed here which can help to understand memories of pleasure and hedonic judgments.

Encoded Modalities. Interviewees’ accounts tell us something about the way pleasurable experiences are remembered and retrieved. The initial ease with which interviewees described sensorial pleasures suggests that sensory modalities are an important component of hedonic memories. Yet, just as easily as interviewees can described the decor of a favorite restaurant, so are equally salient the emotional corollaries of hedonic experiences: a "cozy", "romantic" restaurant, an "exciting" trip, a "relaxing" atmosphere, etc. Finally, time is also encoded in hedonic memories via segues or sequences of images: Julie is clear that she could "see", ante facto, the entire trip unfold in her mind ("I was seeing us getting ready, in the car, listening to music, chatting about work and stuff. (...) I could see the restaurant we were gonna go to, the disco. We were gonna go to the hotel, that’s fun." [int. 4, par. 32 & 34]).

Retrieval. How are memories of pleasure triggered? Environmental cues, both sensory and concrete but also abstract, are powerful triggering agents. For instance, it is not only concrete features of her favorite Greek restaurant which transports Ann back to her honeymoon in Greece but it is also the authenticity of that decor (abstract feature). Once memories are triggered, an intricate reconstruction process begins. This process has been vividly described in literature (e.g., Proust’s petites madeleines) and in early work on memory (e.g., Bartlett, 1932).

Interviews were often marked by hesitations, shifting body postures, and comments like "Umm, that’s a good question". During initial data coding, these cues were interpreted as a by-product of interviewees’ uneasiness with the subject matter and with the interviewer. However, consideration of such patterns across interviews revealed that these verbal and non-verbal cues marked successive passages to greater levels of detail and vividness in interviewees’ accounts. It thus appears that the reconstruction process is not just a collage of thoughts but moves in concentric fashion, from an initial triggering element outward to greater levels of specificity.


The stories reported on in this paper are consistent with previous findings and extend our understanding of hedonic consumption by pointing to under-investigated features and dynamics of the experience of pleasure. Let us focus on three key issues.

Pleasure is multi-dimensional. A multiplicity of sources of stimulation can be associated with a single hedonic object. For instance, one can drink a bottle of wine for sensorial pleasure (taste, tingle on the tongue, etc.); the same bottle can be drunk in the company of friends and open the gates to emotional associations; add expertise and knowledge nd the experience turns into an intellectual effort to appreciate the varietal aromas and the winemaker’s craftsmanship. Uncovering and accounting for the subtle combination of the sources within a single experience, difficult as it may be, has both methodological and conceptual implications.

From a methodological standpoint, a finer definition of pleasure which accounts for its multiple sources can lead to improvements in our measurement efforts. At times, a single measure of pleasure, such as experience utility, can be entirely appropriate as researchers may be interested in nothing more than consumers’ overall evaluations or as it may be the only measure obtainable. But where the experience of pleasure is concerned, closer attention must be paid to the measure of its constituent sources (sensorial, social, and psychological).

From a conceptual standpoint, possible interrelationships between sources of pleasure deserve further attention. Consistent with previous findings (Elster and Loewenstein, 1992), our results suggests that when thinking about pleasure consumers dissect and remember hedonic experiences in terms of their temporal components: anticipation, the experience itself, and memories and retrospection of the event. Thus, consideration of the multiple sources of pleasure raises interesting questions for future research. How does the combination of sources shift during and between these periods? How does the dominant source of pleasure influence the perception of the event and its overall evaluation? Is an experience evaluated as more or less intense depending on which source of pleasure is more salient?

Memories of pleasure. An important question raised by our findings is how affective, hedonic information is combined into retrospective global judgments. Our results suggest that consumers can appraise various pleasures with subtle nuances that have little to do with the rational additive utility models. As our interviews revealed, a consumer might come out of a restaurant and admit that the food was pretty bad but the company and ambiance made up for it, or one could concede that a movie wasn’t really "deep" even though it was enjoyed for its special effects. This finding is consistent with recent investigations of biases in hedonic judgments. In one study, colonoscopy patients were asked to provide a 1 to 10 rating of their discomfort at specific intervals during the procedure and an overall evaluation afterwards. An average of the peak and ending discomfort accounted for the overall evaluation that patients made of the entire procedure (Kahneman, Fredrickson, Schreiber, Redelmeier, 1993). In another study where patients’ emotional states were monitored during hospitalization, retrospective judgments of those emotions were found to be biased by the pattern of change over time (DubT and Morgan, 1996). Our findings point to the need to investigate whether similar biases operate with more pleasant stimuli, especially with more complex experiences that involve more than one source of pleasure.

Our findings further suggest that the temporal distance of an event may influence retrospective judgments and memories. When asked how she would have rated, at the time, her trip with her friends (from 1 to 10), Julie (int. 4) gave it a 5 largely because of a disappointing visit to a local disco. Yet, when asked how she would rate it now, she willingly rated her trip a 9 and admitted she might even consider returning to that discothFque! Similar shifts have also been observed for predictions of hedonic judgments. After tasting and rating a sample of low-fat plain yogurt, subjects were asked to predict their liking one week hence. While the majority of subjects predicted a decrease in liking, actual liking one week later had increased for 61% of the subjects (Kahneman & Snell, 1992). Thus, research should investigate whether the dominant aspects of pleasure remain stable over time, or, alternatively, whether hindsight leads to different rules of evaluation.

The special role of imagery in pleasure. Mental imagery is not merely a happenstance of hedonic consumption, but a defining eature thereof. The autobiographical nature of mental images and the fact that they capture "(...) our attitude towards a whole mass of organized past reactions and experiences (...)" (Bartlett, 1932, p. 213) makes them a good witness to consumers’ construction of reality. Part of the reality that Ann is buying at her favorite Greek restaurant is in fact another honeymoon in Greece which is re-experienced in a collection of intense and clear images. As critical as mental images are to the subjective experience of pleasure, we still know very little about their actual content, how they are formed, and their role in the recollection process of past pleasures.


Besides the usual caveats inherent to our chosen methodology, some limitations of our approach deserve comments. First, by design, our focus on daily pleasures has excluded more intense consumption experiences and emotions. Second, our approach essentially aimed to surface what the average consumer had to say about everyday pleasures and their dynamics. The unstructured nature our interviews and the lack of personal data on each interviewee probably led us to overlook important life themes that could have help to shed more light on individual experiences. An alternative qualitative analysis method might eventually shed new light on our transcripts and surface other features of the experience of pleasure. These limitations notwithstanding, our interviews have offered rich and diversified first-hand accounts of many processes and dynamics inherent to everyday pleasures previously only evidenced in survey research or laboratory experiments.


Our exploration of the dynamics of everyday pleasures offers some insights for managerial practice. First, a comprehensive understanding of the many pleasures delivered by a single experience can only benefit product and service design efforts. As noted before, the subtle combination of various sources of pleasure (sensorial, social, and psychological) define the content and nature of an experience. By understanding the nature of the experience their product or service delivers, managers can identify attributes that will enhance or downplay various pleasures therein. A corollary assumption is that one also understands the evaluation rules used by consumers. As Julie’s disco fiasco suggested, both compensatory and non-compensatory rules may be followed, requiring different managerial tactics. For example, the low social pleasure of the solitary dinner or the loss of taste sensitivity of the elderly can, in some instances, be overcome by focusing attention on other pleasures at the table. But consider Anne’s visit to her favorite Greek restaurant: her pleasure was both an emotional and a sensorial one which suggests that at times it is the mutually-reinforcing relationship between sources of stimulation which must be emphasized in product and service design.

Secondly, the temporal components of hedonic experiences also raise interesting ideas for managerial applications. As our findings have shown, the anticipation and reminiscing phases of hedonic experiences are just as equally important as the consumption phase itself. Managing hedonic experiences thus requires attention to each phase individually and to their connectivity. Such consideration for what consumers anticipate and bring into the experience, as well as for the process by which they build memories of their experiences can lead to ingenious tactics. For example, at Disney, carefully located and well-advertised "photo ops" are built into the visit to manage the family memories which are as important to the experience as the rides themselves, while other tactics serve to manage children’s feverish anticipation.

A final implication of our findings concerns mental images. As our interviews revealed, mental images are an omnipresent feature of every temporal phase of hedonic experiences. While advertising has been chiefly concerned with creating and communicating mental images that build up anticipation, the role and influence of these images created throughout hedonic experiences has been less carefully considered. A refined understanding of these images can generate innovative concept development ideas if attention is paid to both their content and the process by which they are built. For instance, the manager of Anne’s favorite Greek restaurant who considers renovations or wishes to expand, must not only understand the inner world which Anne and others like her enter when they come to this restaurant but the process by which these images come about. In this case, any expansion should preserve, even reinforce the specific aspects of the surroundings which contributes to Anne’s pleasure and triggers her memories of her honeymoon in Greece.


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