Can't Buy Happiness?

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When You Are Hungry, the Future Goes on Sale

Resisting temptations takes willpower which is fueled by glucose.

"I can resist everything except temptation."

OSCAR WILDE, Lady Windermere's Fan

When "trying to be good" turns into overindulgence.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You go to the grocery store to buy some rice cakes and carrots, but you haven't eaten all day. While you are "trying to be good" you end up buying a king size bag of Doritos and a gallon of ice cream instead. What started out with good intensions, ended with Doritos fingers and a milk mustache. So don't go to Safeway when you are hungry—right?

As it turns out, researchers are showing that how hungry we are has an impact on all kinds of economic decisions we make.

In a series of studies published over the last several years, researchers have examined the effect of low blood sugar (i.e., low glucose levels) on how people make decisions. What they find is that the level of glucose available to our brains has a direct impact on our willpower. Amazingly, if people receive a soft drink with real sugar drink, instead of a soft drink with artificial sweetener, they are much better at resisting temptation and working on hard tasks longer.

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When Oscar Wilde quipped that he could resist everything but temptation, perhaps he was just hungry.

As it turns out, when our blood glucose levels are low, we discount the future more. That is why you buy ice cream when you are hungry; the pleasure you will receive from the ice cream now is more important than future health consequences of the ice cream.

Were you hungry the last time this happened?
So how does your hunger level relate to your spending habits? Food (specifically glucose) is the fuel of willpower for all kinds of financial decisions. Just like you are more willing to buy the ice cream when you are hungry, you are more willing to accept a small financial gain now, rather than hold out for a bigger gain later, when you are hungry. If you go to the mall when you are hungry, the idea of adding a few hundred dollars to your credit card doesn’t seem like a bad an idea; whereas if you were well fed, you may not discount the future as much and you might decide to pass on buying that remote-control helicopter or fondue set.

The connection between hunger and spending habits—specifically discounting the future and racking up debt in the present—isn't something we my think about when we are shopping. However, knowing that being hungry will influence your spending habits allows you to make a simple change in order to control your spending. Next time you are thinking of a taking trip to the stores downtown, have a meal before you hit the shops. Doing so may save you hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars; and, you may not clutter your house with helicopters and fondue sets you never intended to buy.

So, what are the other hidden motivations behind your buying preferences? To find out more about your subconscious buying motives, we encourage you to Login or Register to take our Implicit Buying Motives Study. You might then try the Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, which measures the extent to which your family and friends influence your buying behavior. We think you may learn a lot about how you and why you spend your money the way you do.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham and Dr. Ryan Howell.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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