An Alternative View from the Wing (and the hotel bed)

I never watch Larry King. If I were to have a dishonorable mention for retiree of the year, King would be it. Yet, recently while staying in a hotel, I watched nearly ten minutes of Larry King. I have other more systematic preference shifts when in different contexts. On airplanes, I almost always order tomato juice despite rarely ordering it on the ground.*

*I do remember taking a flight once in which they oddly took the drink orders before the plane left the ground. After regaining my composure, I believe I opted for no drink.

This phenomenon of changing preferences with changing environments is not limited to me. A German study found that tomato juice is incredibly popular on airplanes, for example. And, apparently, Ginger Ale is also disproportionately popular on airplanes.*

*A quick Google and Google Scholar search did not reveal anything on the hotel television preference issue. There is plenty, however, on Larry King’s awfulness.

Now, a shift to some classic economic theory: revealed preference theory holds that a consumer’s preferences are revealed by their behavior, or purchasing habits. So, if a woman usually buys two apples each week rather than two oranges, the revealed preference theorist would say that she prefers the bundle of two apples.*

*If a man were to buy the two apples on the other hand . . . Just kidding. This is not a gender-discriminating theory.

If the phenomena I discuss above are in fact generalizable, that could have some interesting implications for revealed preference theory. At first glance, we may view such findings as a critique of revealed preference theory. The fact that our preferences differ in different environments or contexts may indicate that our genuine preferences are being stifled in our typical environments. For instance, we may have a routine of ordering a Coke in restaurants, and there’s inertia to overcoming that routine. When in a different context—in the air or in another country, etc—that inertial force may lessen as we conceptualize our different drink preference as temporary.

There are several reasonable objections to this take:

First, we should not be so dismissive of routine and tradition. Choosing the same beverage every time reduces decision costs by allowing an individual to exercise no thought when choosing what beverage to purchase. Perhaps part of an individual’s preference bundle is choosing a consistent product because that individual prefers routine or tradition for whatever reason.

Second, we may not even need to defend tradition and routine. Another way of framing an individual’s different preferences in different contexts is that the individual prefers minimal diversity. So, an airplane ginger ale drinker may prefer to have ginger ale a few times each year, but certainly not every time he goes to a restaurant. His different context—the airplane, the hotel room, or somewhere else—just serves as a useful proxy: When in that different environment, the individual is reminded of his alternative preference—since he usually acts on it in this different context—and thus orders it there.

Third and similarly, there may be some rational basis for an individual having different preferences in different environments. Some theorize, for instance, that tomato juice is popular in the air because of its high salt content, which is somehow beneficial at high altitudes. TV show preferences changing in the hotel room is more difficult to explain under this theory.

Fourth, the examples I gave interestingly do not directly rely on a pricing mechanism. We generally get drinks for “free” on airplanes* and we do not pay separately to watch television shows in hotels. While interesting, this doesn’t seem particularly relevant, since 1) we are still dealing with a scarce resource (e.g. if you order the tomato juice you can’t order some other beverage as well) and 2) we should be able to come up with examples of this phenomenon with priced items as well without a hitch (e.g. purchased alcoholic beverages in airplanes).

*The cost is obviously included in the price of the airplane ticket, but we do not pay for the drink directly.

While being mindful of these objections, it may be worthwhile to think about when your preferences differ in different contexts and determine whether your current preference bundle in your standard environment is, in fact, optimal: I now occasionally order tomato juice on the ground. After very brief introspection, I determined that I will not be watching any Larry King reruns. Perhaps I’ll watch some more Charlie Rose, though.


10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on January 2, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    I think ginger ale is more popular on planes for similar reasons that tomato juice is more popular: Since it helps settle some peoples’ stomachs, people who have or fear getting motion sickness may be more prone to order it on flights.

    As for TV, here’s an ad hoc and probably insufficient theory: Hotels make you more inclined to watch television that you would have no interest in otherwise because people in hotels generally watch TV for one of three reasons. 1) To have some noise on in the background so as to combat the loneliness that often comes with staying in a hotel. 2) To have something to watch when you are too tired to do anything else. 3) To get the weather of a new city. Now, these are all reasons to watch TV at home as well, but since they are almost EXCLUSIVELY the reasons to watch TV in a hotel (I mean, it’s not like you are going to watch The Wire or Breaking Bad in a hotel), then you’re mainly watching for things like familiarity and simplicity of plot, which are in many ways opposed to quality concerns.


    • Posted by Josh on January 2, 2011 at 9:37 PM

      Another reason for the hotel behavior could be that people may feel guilty committing to watch a show in a hotel when they’re in a different city/should be traveling/getting sleep etc. If you watch Mad Men or an episode of you’re favorite TV show, then you basically know you’re committing to watching the episode: the same isn’t true of the news, Larry King, or the weather.


  2. Posted by Matthew Scott Rozen on January 2, 2011 at 6:00 PM

    I was going to chime in with the same point about ginger ale. In general, I think these preferences are more often rationale than you suggest, and when they’re not rational, marketing / salience also have a lot to do with it. The tradition / inertia point explains consistency of preferences, but doesn’t explain why those preferences vary between contexts – if anything, it would predict more consistency.

    Regarding tomato juice, I’d guess that’s mostly rational. In addition to the salt thing, consider the fact that you’re usually not eating when you order something to drink on an airplane. Maybe you like tomato juice on its own, but don’t think that it pairs well with other foods. That raises the question of why you don’t buy it at home, but tomato juice is perishable, so it’s seems rational that you might choose not to buy it and keep it at home.

    Meanwhile, how many restaurants even sell tomato juice (I don’t drink it myself, so I have no idea)? Maybe that begs the question, i.e. maybe if there were more demand, more places would carry it, but there innumerable reasons why this might not be true (ex. maybe it’s only profitable to carry the x most popular beverages, and tomato juice isn’t one of them; maybe tomato juice makers don’t effectively market to retailers, etc.). Even where tomato juice is sold, there may be information problems: is it displayed on the menu is a salient manner, or even at all? Is it worth the expenditure of effort required to find out of the restaurant sells tomato juice? By contrast, you know airplanes have tomato juice.

    As for Coke at restaurants, habit is a factor, but that doesn’t explain why that particular habit develops. To an extent it may be rational since drinking caffeine at meal times is an effective way to regulate caffeine intake and thus alertness. Moreover, fountains drinks are refillable. The rest is effective advertising, which has a lot to with marketing and bundling options (i.e. the meal combo comes with a fountain drink, the photos all have fountain drinks in them, etc.).

    As for Larry King, consider the possibility that your real preference is for CNN generally (maybe because it’s good background noise, etc., maybe because it’s the kind of station that you can generally just put on at any point, without worrying that you’re catching the middle of a show) . . . and if you turn on CNN right around the time you tend to watch TV at hotels, the chances of Larry King being on is disproportionately high. If you don’t have strong preferences, it might be rational not to change the channels, even if you don’t like the show. Is there anything else on worth watching anyway?

    As for your final point, the probability that introspection on preference inconsistencies is “worthwhile” (i.e. cost justified in terms of expenditure of time vs. improvement of consumption decisions) varies inversely with the probability that these inconsistencies are rational . . . unless you get some additional benefit from the introspection . . . which we must, if we’re spending the time to talk about this on the internet . . .


    • Posted by Josh on January 2, 2011 at 9:42 PM

      Thanks for the rational choice account, Matt. I definitely think there’s inherent value-added by introspection as you imply.

      Your point on salience is particularly well taken. In a different social media forum (not Twitter!), I commented that on airplanes people may be more likely to order particular types of juices because they know they exist since people nearing them are ordering those types of juices. Of course, as you say in another context, this doesn’t explain the initial drink choice/choices that are replicated. Surely there are SOME people on the plane who always read the drink menu and are engaging in an independent decision re: beverage choice.


  3. Posted by Tim on January 2, 2011 at 8:27 PM

    You also don’t consider that most hotels have remote controls that change the channel especially slowly. This, combined with a general lack of knowledge about which channels are which, often lead me to stick with the first tolerable program I find (almost ALWAYS “SportsCenter”)–unless I know something good is on, but that’s rare because who looks up the TV listings when they’re going to a hotel?


    • Posted by Josh on January 2, 2011 at 9:45 PM

      Pshht, your account of hotels is so stuck in Aughts, Tim.

      Lack of knowledge of channels is a good point though. It increases the risk of leaving any particular channel where you’re watching something safe and decent, particularly given the seemingly irrational fear that you won’t be able to get back to the channel that you’re leaving (this seemingly irrational fear has definitely plagued me).


      • Posted by Tim on January 3, 2011 at 12:40 AM

        Have you really been to a hotel with a quality remote control? I’d prefer this over the flat-screen HDTVs they all have now.


  4. Posted by Dan on January 2, 2011 at 9:31 PM

    1. I like the joke at the beginning. And if it wasn’t a joke, I was amused your behavior (i.e. that, I guess, because you introspected about these preferences before and decided you like tomato juice *only* in the air [and not just on airplanes], you decided to be stifled by the early drink ordering, you realized you were not, in fact, in the air and failed to get anything)

    2. Having listened to your first post on tomato juice I thought that means I would really like it too. I excitedly ordered it on my next flight, but disappointedly, found it was as disgusting as it always is.


  5. Posted by Douglas on January 4, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    You actually can get both ginger ale and tomato juice. I’ve ordered multiple beverages before (just once) and have frequently ordered multiple snack options. And I’ve also ordered drinks and snacks outside of the structured opportunities. All in all, I’m a pretty terrible person. But it is interesting (although less interesting than what you discussed) that people often assume that their options are restricted when they aren’t.

    Or maybe my experiences are just anomalous–after all, not every airline can match the hospitality of Southwest.


    • Posted by Josh on January 4, 2011 at 3:32 PM

      I actually was hesitant to include the one-drink example because I know, also from my experience on Southwest, that more than one drink is possible. But, I actually think one drink can still functionally be considered the general rule for the purposes of my analysis because 1) most customers are not aware they can order a second drink which has the same effect–in terms of their first choice of drink–as barring them from ordering a second drink; 2) since you are generally not asked if you want a drink, there is a cost of getting the attention of the flight attendant and working up the nerve to ask for another one: this cost probably deters most people who have knowledge of the second drink policy from getting one. And, I actually think 2) (and the fact that most people don’t want the burden of another drink: having the tray out is kind of annoying) is more explanatory of why individuals don’t order second drinks than the fact that they assume their options are restricted, although the latter definitely occurs to some degree.


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