How we process guilt may be the key difference between impulsive consumers and prudent ones, according to a study in the August Journal of Consumer Research. Examining 158 college students who had been categorized as either impulsive or prudent by a standard personality test, the research found that while both personality types felt an immediate surge of guilt after acting impulsively, that guilt lasted twice as long for people who had been categorized as prudent. The findings may help countless consumers struggling to keep their impulse buys in check.
"This is an important first step toward mapping out the complexities of impulsive decision making," says Kathleen Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management; Vohs wasn't involved in the study. "Most research that looks at this type of behavior tends to focus on how people feel right after they act impulsively without paying attention to how those feelings change over time, or how they affect future choices."
Impulsivity can wreak havoc on a person's life. In recent years, binge drinking, binge eating and impulsive shopping have helped both our waistlines and our credit-card debts reach epidemic proportions—indicating that despite the hangover of remorse which often accompanies such whims, many of us continue to indulge the same impulses over and over again. "The negative feelings of guilt and regret are supposed to keep our impulses in check," says study coauthor Suresh Ramanathan, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. "In reality it doesn't work that way, and we have been at a bit of a loss as to why."
After being categorized as either impulsive or prudent by a series of personality tests, each study participant was left alone with a plate of cookies. Researchers then counted how many cookies each person took, and measured their emotions both immediately afterward and 24 hours later. (They adjusted for how hungry each participant was and how much they liked cookies. They also disguised the true objective of the study so that subjects did not know what taking a cookie would signify.)
Both groups felt predictable mixtures of pleasure and guilt right after taking a cookie or two. But a day later their emotional profiles had diverged according to personality type. While the prudent consumers still felt guilty about having eaten the cookies, the impulsive consumers felt mostly pleasure at the thought. And those participants whose guilt had vanished proved more likely to indulge a second time.
The study also found that consumers with lasting guilt were more likely to follow their impulsive decision with a practical one. In a second part of the study, participants were offered a choice between a bag of potato chips and a notebook. The prudent consumers who had indulged in a cookie or two chose the notebook over the chips—a choice that researchers believe helped rid them of the cookie guilt. "It shows that even people who do feel a lasting sense of guilt over an impulsive choice can get rid of that guilt pretty readily," says Vohs. "People can launder their negative emotions by doing something good or making a more practical choice afterwards."
But while that laundering might enable us to indulge again, it may not always be conscious. "I don't think the participants consciously thought of taking a notebook as a way to make up for taking a cookie," Vohs says. "It's just that once you make a 'good' choice you no longer feel bad."
And marketers are on to us. "While you might disregard an impulse buy as a one-off decision, market researchers look at a stream of consumption choices, and try to position their product within that stream," Williams explains. "So they're essentially saying, 'Indulge here, be good there, indulge here.'" As one example, she cites a Subway commercial that invites consumers to indulge in a variety of treats, such as cookies and cake, as long as they've 'been good' by eating a sandwich for lunch.
Those seeking to curb their impulsive spending should be mindful of how their consumption choices may influence one another, caution the study's authors. "The important thing to take away is that at some level, people's consumption choices are linked over time," Ramanathan says. "The real question for individuals is whether you build off those positive feelings that come from making a 'good choice' or whether you just say, 'Cool, now I'm back to ground zero, so I can go out and have some fun again'."