Impulsive Temptations
Caption: Woman holding apple (image credit)


Imagine that every day in your office, there is a lady that drives a small basket of cakes, with your favourite chocolate donuts. In the middle of the morning it would be great to indulge in some delicious chocolate pastry..but the thought that you would lose appetite for lunch and that would affect the rest of the day, makes you restrain – exercise an act of self-regulation.


What is self-regulation? Self-regulation is synonymous with individual inhibition of an automatic behavior in anticipation of future negative consequences. Its study was initiated during the ’60s by Walter Mischel, through the now-famous “Marshmallow Test.” This experiment showed that children’s capacity to delay gratification—choosing to receive two marshmallows later instead of one immediately—was a strong predictor of their academic success, social adjustment, happiness, and popularity 18 years later as young adults.


In the last decade, the study of human self-regulation has received closer attention from psychologists, marketers, and economists. It is a popular subject, as it can help explain different phenomena such as impulsive buying, debt, and even (un)happiness. Although distinct, these phenomena share a common trait: they originate from conflict of interests between people’s present behavior and long-term interests.


According to the evidence collected over the last 15 years, self-regulation results is the search of an equilibrium between the forces of will and desire. The forces of desire come from the so-called visceral factors—physiological states, moods, emotions—that lead to poor decision-making and the adoption of behaviors contrary to the long-term interests of individuals (such as alcohol and drug abuse, overeating, overspending). The forces of will constitute the rational component of this equilibrium. They are the ones that allow the individual to counteract the forces of desire and to make decisions that adopt or inhibit behaviors according to long-term interests (such as not to binge drink, not to overeat, to exercise, to save money).


The most recent research shows three key conclusions: people’s self-regulation resources are limited; these resources can increase in the long run through regular practice of self-regulation; the beliefs and motivations of individuals influence the way they manage their self-regulation resources. Researchers found that different types of activities, which are part of most people’s daily routine—such as decision-making, emotional regulation, resisting temptations, solving complex problems, managing self-presentation—use a common and limited resource. This resource diminishes between successive acts of self-control but can become stronger in the long run, through the exercise of activities involving self-control, as if it were a muscle.


Additionally, there’s a direct relationship between self-regulation effectiveness and the amount of blood glucose. Researchers verified that, not only acts of self-regulation lead to a decrease in blood sugar levels, but also that great amounts of glucose in the blood facilitate the process of self-regulation.


Besides this physiological component, research also shows that the psychological dimension, namely the beliefs and motivations of individuals, influence the way they manage their self-regulatory resources. People’s beliefs determine its use in a given situation in accordance with the perception of available resources and resulting benefits.


Thus, we can say that people, besides managing financial and material resources, also manage self-regulatory resources. The management of self-regulatory resources follows a quasi-economic, cost-benefit relationship. The resources required to exercise an act of self-control increases exponentially as the available resources decrease. That means that the same self-regulatory act (e.g., not eating chocolate cake) can be exercised in a given context (e.g., after a relaxing Sunday morning) but not in another (e.g., after a stressful day in the middle of the week), due to differences in the availability of self-regulatory resources.


How is this related to impulsive buying?


Impulsive buying is an unplanned purchase; the decision to buy is made at the time of purchase, rather than preceding it. It is characterized by its emotional nature and lack of rational considerations. Impulsive buying is also associated with buying products for which the immediate pleasure is much higher than the long-term utility.


These products are commonly referred to as hedonic products. In this category, we can includes all foods involving an immediate gratification, such as tobacco, alcohol, sugary sweets, and junk food, but also products whose consumption involves a highly symbolic component such as fashionable clothing, perfumes, watches, and sports cars. Impulsive purchases are designed to fulfill emotional and immediate needs, when the forces of desire overpower the forces of will.


Since our self-regulatory resources diminish throughout the day, the morning is probably the best time to go shopping, according to research on the relationship between self-regulation and impulsive buying. This research showed a clear relationship between consumers’ self-regulation levels and their capacity to resist impulsive buying. This happens because self-regulation levels are high before we’ve made any decisions that day, and go down with each decision.


Are consumer lack of self-regulation and impulsive buying negative phenomena? Nowadays, mostly in big cities, our levels of self-regulation are low due to hectic lifestyles. The urban landscape is characterized by advertising and commercial super-stimulation.


Additionally, consumer desire is often triggered by social comparison, a pervasive phenomenon in large cities (compare the amount of daily social interactions of an individual who lives in New York with one living in a small Portuguese village). It is estimated that the vast majority of purchases by urban consumers are impulsive. In other words, purchases where the emotional aspects overpower rationality and long-term interests.


Just think: How often do you eat because you feel really hungry? The urban landscape is always suggesting people eat more. Or ask yourself every time you buy something: Do I really need this? You might be surprised by how infrequently the answer is yes.