Sold?

Understanding consumer behavior—before you buy.

Avoiding the Willpower Depleting Effects of Self-Control

Using self-control doesn't have to make us more impulsive.

Last month I discussed the somewhat paradoxical finding that using self-control actually makes us more impulsive.  To briefly summarize, exerting self-control depletes mental energy used for subsequent self-control exertions (a process called ego-depletion).  This energy is replenished, but while it’s being replenished we have less self-control strength and are consequently more impulsive.  There are however ways to attenuate the ego-depleting effect of using self-control, which include affirming our core-values, inducing a good mood, and consuming glucose.  I’m going to discuss all three of these methods, so that if you find yourself in a situation demanding self-control (like resisting the urge to buy desirable products) you can better protect yourself from ego-depletion.

Affirming core values can diminish the effects of ego-depletion.  By core values I mean stable, deeply held principles or standards of behavior.  Affirming core values can protect us from the effects of ego-depletion because doing so reminds us why those values are important.  This helps us focus on our long-term goals instead of short-term gratification, which reinforces our ability to delay gratification.  For example, if we value being healthy, affirming the value of being healthy helps remind us that health equals happiness, wellbeing, and longevity.  This could have the effect of motivating us to eat well, even in the face of tempting, indulgent food.

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Being in a good mood can also attenuate ego-depletion effects.  A good mood gives us energy and makes it easier to deal with difficult situations.  This all has the effect of improving our chances of resisting impulsive urges, like the urge to purchase a product we happen to notice but didn’t plan to buy.

Not all of the methods discussed in this post are purely psychological.  Consuming glucose can help reinforce our willpower in the face of ego-depletion.  Glucose, which is basically sugar, is like brain fuel:  Our brains use it to operate, and operations that require more activity consume more glucose.  Exerting willpower requires a fair amount of brain activity, and consequently consumes a significant quantity of glucose.  When the glucose levels in our body are lower our brains have less fuel with which to control our behavior, including of course resisting impulsive buying urges.  Now I don’t mean to imply that the individual who constantly consumes soft drinks and candy will be a paragon of willpower.  I’m just saying that glucose decrements are associated with impulsive behavior, and consuming a little glucose prevents those decrements and helps us resist impulsive urges.

How do we apply this knowledge to practical situations?  If you’re on a shopping trip and you see something you want but you probably shouldn’t buy, remind yourself why it’s important not to buy it.  For example, if you’re at the grocery store and you see some unhealthy snack that tempts you, remind yourself that if you’re fit and healthy you’ll feel better.  Or, if you’re at a big box store and you see an electronic device or an appliance you like but can’t really afford, remind yourself that saving money helps you stay out of debt.  Putting yourself in a good mood before a shopping trip is a smart way to resist impulsive urges.  You could watch a funny video on the Internet, or have a nice chat with a friend, or think of a time you helped someone or received a gift.  These are all easy ways to induce a good mood, which will make it easier for you to resist tempting situations.  Finally, don’t go shopping on an empty stomach.  Have a small snack before a shopping trip to boost your body’s glucose levels and help prevent impulsive decisions.  By a small snack I mean something that’s approximately 100 calories.  There is one caveat here:  This advice does not apply to individuals with blood sugar issues, as in the case of those with pre-Diabetes or Diabetes.  For individuals with blood sugar issues consuming sugar can be dangerous.  So, if you have high blood sugar, please do not deviate from your physician’s advice.

We all exert willpower in the course of our daily lives, and we all behave impulsively now and then.  A certain (modest) amount of impulsive behavior is normal and can be harmless.  However, when it comes to spending money it’s usually smart to be careful to make calculated decisions.  Using a few simple tactics can help you avoid impulsive choices by making it easier to exert willpower in tempting situations.  This way you’ll waste less money and continue to behave like a smarter consumer.

Ian Zimmerman, Ph.D., is an experimental psychologist who studies consumer behavior in order to help consumers make better, smarter buying decisions.

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