Consumers’ Self-Control Today is Influenced by Choices They May Make Tomorrow Finds Study
New Haven, Conn., February 1, 2007— Before you reach for that snack, does thinking about your next meal make it easier to eat healthy? Every day, people make choices that involve self-control dilemmas such as choosing between a fattening cookie and a fat-free yogurt as a snack. A new consumer behavior study from researchers at the Yale School of Management and Carnegie Mellon finds that the self-control people exercise in a decision at hand is influenced by the choices they believe they will make in the future.
According to the study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, people are more likely to choose a tempting option (a vice) over an option that will be beneficial in the long run (a virtue) when the choice is viewed as one in a series of similar choices that they will make in the future. Knowing that a choice is one in a series rather than an isolated decision allows people to optimistically believe that they will choose a virtue in the future. This gives them a guilt-reducing justification to not exercise self-control in the present – they can be bad now because they intend to be good later.
For example, a business traveler is more likely to splurge on a tasty but unhealthy breakfast of donuts on the first day of a week-long trip believing that he will choose a healthy non-fat yogurt in subsequent days.
But despite his best intentions, the business traveler will probably keep choosing donuts for breakfast according to the study. The findings show that the choices people actually make in the future are not consistent with the choices they predicted they would make.
“People are overly optimistic about how they will behave in the future. They believe they will have self-control later, but they usually end up choosing the more tempting option when it is time to make that choice, ” said Ravi Dhar, professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management and director of the Yale Center for Customer Insights. Dhar co-authored the study with Uzma Khan, assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business.
In one of five experiments involving self-control conflicts, Dhar and Khan asked two groups of participants to choose a free magazine for the current week and offered a selection of “highbrow” options such as business magazines, and “lowbrow” options such as tabloids. One group of participants was told that they would be able to choose a second magazine the following week. Of those participants, 83% chose the vice option – a lowbrow magazine – for the current week compared to 53% of participants who believed they would only get one choice. In a follow-up experiment, 67% of participants predicted that they would choose a virtue, or the highbrow magazine, the following week, but only 36% actually did.
The research can be applied to any choices that require self-control and bring up feelings of guilt such as buying more expensive items, excessive spending, and even immoral but tempting decisions. With tax season upon us, Dhar notes that the latter has interesting implications for tax filers.
“If someone is deciding how honest to be on his tax return this year and thinks about it in terms of having to file every year in the future, it may lead him to be less moral this year and, for example, take liberties with deductions,” said Dhar.
Citation: “Where There Is a Way, Is There a Will? The Effect of Future Choices on Self-Control,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
The Yale Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management is a research center that studies the behavior of customers and marketplace dynamics. The Center welcomes inquiries from organizations interested in research partnership and sponsorship opportunities. For more information visit: http://www.cci.som.yale.edu or contact Eugenia Hayes at 203-432-6069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.