There Are Free Lunches

Behavioral clues to a happy life.

Self-Regulation: Consumer Non-Behavior

Why is the study of consumer non-behavior becoming so important?

What is self-regulation? Self-regulation is synonymous with individual inhibition of an automatic behavior of future negative consequences, through a self-control process. Its study was initiated during the '60s by Walter Mischel, through the now famous "Marsmallow 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, 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 popular given it can help explain diversified phenomena such as impulsive buying, debt, (non)utility, and even (un)happiness. Although distinct, these phenomena share a common trait: they originate from conflict of interests between the individuals' present behavior and long-term interests.

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According to the evidence collected over the last 15 years, self-regulation results from an equilibrium between the forces of will and desire. The forces of desire are sourced by the so-called visceral factors—physiological states, humors, 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).

In light of the most recent research, it is possible to highlight three key evidences: the individuals' 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. Thus, researchers found that different types of activities, which are part of most people's daily routine—such as stress relief, decision-making, emotional regulation, resisting temptations, solving complex problems, managing self-presentation—use a common and limited resource. This resource diminishes between two consecutive 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, a direct relationship between self-regulation effectiveness and the amount of blood glucose was also established. Thus, 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, determining its use in a given situation in accordance with the perception of available resources and resulting benefits. Thus, nowadays 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, where the benefit required to exercise an act of self-control increases exponentially as the available resources decrease, that is, its cost increases.

How is this related with impulsive buying?

Assuming that our self-regulatory resources diminish throughout the day, then the morning is probably the best time to go shopping—this has been the best advice for consumers, according to research on the relationship between self-regulation and impulsive buying. Thus, this stream of research showed a clear relationship between consumers' self-regulation levels and their capacity to resist impulsive buying.

Impulsive buying is an unplanned purchase, the decision to buy is taken at the time of purchase, rather than preceding it. Thus, it is characterized by its emotional nature and lack of rational considerations. Impulsive buying is also characterized by being associated with buying products in which the emotional component overpowers the utilitarian component, and immediate pleasure is above the long-term utility. These products are commonly referred to as hedonic products; in this category, we can include 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. Thus, impulsive purchases are designed to fulfill emotional and immediate needs, whereas the forces of desire overpower the forces of will, often putting into question the consumer's self-regulation.

Economics of happiness?

Are consumer deregulation 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 hyper-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 suggestion is to always eat more. Or ask yourself every time you buy something: Do I really need this? You would definitely be surprised by the infrequent number of times the answer is yes.

If, on one side, life in the big city leads to increased consumption (often at the expense of consumer deregulation) is also true that this favors increased production. In fact, most of the efficiency and effectiveness criteria of modern management implies the concentration of people and goods to allow economies of scale, cost minimization and profit maximization. This is one of the reasons we have witnessed a permanent increase in the size of cities, which leads to an increase in the number of transactions of goods and services, benefiting the economy. The big question is whether it will increase the happiness of individuals? To have growth economies, do we need deregulated consumers and unfortunate citizens? As well as depleted natural resources?

The answer is not easy, nor simple. Nevertheless, many factors—the increasing importance given to nations subjective indices to assess their levels of development, the apparent convergence between psychology and economics that has been observed in major schools of economics and management, and the emergence of the science of happiness—indicate the imminent shift of our development paradigm. The study of consumer behavior can make an important contribution to adapting to this new marketing paradigm, which will no longer be the discipline that creates the urge to buy to become the science that makes for the best possible transaction between who buys and sells, objectively and subjectively, in the short and long term. In the name of Happiness.

Diogo Gonçalves is a Ph.D. candidate in Economic Psychology, Judgment and Decision Making at the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research at Tilburg University.

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