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Why Modern Consumers Crave Both Freedom and Structure

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VIDEO GAMES
Mikael Damkier via Getty Images

Today, consumers desire to interact rather than to just mindlessly consume. Consumers don't want to just read; they want to comment. They don't want to just watch TV; they want to live tweet. They don't want to just dance at a new club; they want to share the whole night on Instagram.

Consumers want to do more than just "enjoy the moment." Modern consumers crave what consumer scientists Darren Dahl and Page Moreau call "constrained creativity." Constrained creativity is defined as an activity with two components. First, the activity has enough freedom for consumers to be creative. Second, and importantly, the activity has enough structure to guide consumers and measure their success, such as through norms or goals.

When we look at what modern consumers love, we readily see these two components. On Twitter, people like the freedom of making original comments but also benefit from the structure of twitter's enforced length and trending hashtags. With modern expansive video games like BioShock, the freedom is to explore and decide, but within the structure of the game.

Modern technology allows products and experiences to tap into people's most ancient and basic motives. We love to compete, show off and create. These are basic feelings that even babies and animals crave and enjoy. Modern pleasures like the open world video games and Twitter engage modern consumers in a way that other activities of the past just do not. They provide more than basic entertainment; they provide a semi-structured "game" and an opportunity for self-expression.

Consider even the mundane phenomenon of self-serve frozen yogurt. The reason frozen yogurt has become so popular may not be entirely due to its taste, but to the opportunity for constrained creativity. There is joy in self-serving, there is pride in crafting the perfect swirl and there is self-expression in creating a yogurt that is uniquely personal.

From self-serve frozen yogurt, to Twitter, to video games, entertainment is changing. Whether this change is overall "good" or "bad" for people is an open debate. However, one thing is for certain: This change is powerful enough that if any business cares about obtaining and retaining consumers, they'd better feed people's craving for constrained creativity. They must understand the modern happiness equation: Happiness = freedom + structure .

Of course, this equation has always been true, but today's consumers are getting more and more tastes of constrained creativity. With each new bite of a "freedom + structure" activity, consumers develop a new consumption appetite that cannot be satisfied by the entertainment of the past. Today they crave more.

Four Examples of the Freedom + Structure Magic Formula

#1 The IKEA Effect
A Harvard University led study finds that when people build or assemble things (like an IKEA bookcase or frozen yogurt), they like the things more because of the effort and self-involvement.

#2 Imagined Involvement
The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon involves TV audience members directly on Twitter through frequent hashtags. Even if most viewers do not tweet, they may imagine what they would tweet and feel a positive sense of imagined involvement.

#3 Instant Feedback
Modern technologies provide immediate feedback. If you take a good selfie, you will get likes. If you outsmart a video game boss, you will level up. This tight connection between effort and immediate reward can make technology-based interactive experiences more desirable than real life effort.

#4 Interactive Art
Chicago's famous Bean (also called the "Cloud Gate" by no one but the Wikipedia entry) is an artistic "mirror fun house." Adding to its popularity its launch coincided with the iPhone launch and the proliferation of the camera phone. The Bean invites visitors to create their own art via creative photography or to just take a very interesting selfie.

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If you liked this article you may also like Troy Campbell's articles: What People Consume Says A Lot About Them and How Age Changes the Meaning of Happiness.

Troy Campbell researches consumer happiness at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business and the Center for Advanced Hindsight.

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