Inside the Consumer Mind

Understanding the rational and emotional foundations of consumer behavior

The Holiday Urge to Splurge

Why you overindulge and what you can do about it.

woman with gift boxes
Every year during the holidays, many of us eat and drink too much, and spend more money than we should. You make commitments to yourself, promises to others, and vows to the gods of self-restraint, but the results are the same … overindulgence. This doesn’t mean you are a weak or terrible person. It just reaffirms that you are human.

But the problem could have as much or more to do with the calendar than it does with your lack of willpower. During the short, six week period from Thanksgiving through New Years, you are likely to face many more temptations than over the rest of the year. It simply may be that than you are unable to resist so many enticements in a short period of time. You keep dipping into the well of self-control, but pretty soon the well runs dry.

Since the time of Freud, theories of self-regulation have focused on emotional needs and drives, attention, and motivation. In consumer research, problems associated with self-restraint frequently were believed to be located in products themselves (‘impulse items’), contributing to the inability of shoppers to ignore them at the cash register.

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Beginning in the 1990s, an energy model of self-control emerged from research. Often referred to as the ‘strength model,’ it is based on the observation that self-control exhibits a dynamic similar to that of a muscle. Everyone who has exercised with weights knows that at the end of a workout you cannot lift as much as you could at the beginning. The strength of your muscles has decreased with each exertion. Similarly, subjects in self-control research studies initially were able to exercise self-restraint. However, their ability to apply self-control declined with repeated use. The conclusion is that self-control is a limited psychological resource that is depleted by each subsequent exertion.

Empirical studies have demonstrated that depletion of self regulation occurs over a wide range of behaviors, including the three big temptations of the holidays: overeating, drinking alcohol, and unplanned spending. And while too much food and alcohol may make you feel badly about yourself, impulsive spending can do serious damage to your financial wellbeing. Research has shown that shoppers in a state of self-control depletion spend more money and buy more items than those who have a greater amount of self-restraint in their tank.

Preemptive, anti-indulgence steps like mentally setting limits before going to a party and making shopping lists may not be enough to keep you out of trouble. Research indicates that focused intention does not overcome self-control depletion.

Thankfully, the muscle analogy offers a solution for those of us who overindulge. Just as weight training strengthens muscles, self-control stamina can be increased through physical and cognitive exercises.

Studies have demonstrated that several weeks of physical regimens (e.g. posture and walking exercises) or cognitive exercises (similar to the color naming task in the Stroop test) increased the self-control stamina of research subjects as compared to control groups. In addition, these results have been supported by fMRI studies which revealed that exercise interventions delayed the time at which self-regulatory resource depletion takes its toll.

So rather than joining a health club after the holidays to repair the damage from overindulging; think about becoming your own self-control ‘trainer’ before the parties begin.

Want to learn more about depletion of self-control? Here are a few recommended journal articles:

Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The Strength Model of Self-Control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(6), 351–355.

Vohs, K. D., & Faber, R. J. (2007). Spent Resources: Self-Regulatory Resource Availability Affects Impulse Buying. Journal of Consumer Research, 33(4), 537–547.

Sultan, A. J., Joireman, J., & Sprott, D. E. (2011). Building Consumer Self-Control: The Effect of Self-Control Exercises on Impulse Buying Urges. Marketing Letters, 23(1), 61–72.

Peter Noel Murray, Ph.D., is principal of a consumer psychology practice in New York City. Dr. Murray's specialty is the psychological drivers of consumer behavior, with emphasis on emotion.

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