We are approaching the end of the year and counting down the days to the holidays! I spent this past week mostly reading academic papers from Psychology and Consumer Research journals on a topic that would be relevant to all of us as we step into the holiday season. This study is widely cited in popular books, such as How We Decide and probably in social psych or marketing course. It is about self-control.
It’s one of the many experiments out there that try to study self-control in a lab setting. Before we begin, I should be cautious and should warn you about the danger of juggling words such as self-control, willpower, cognitive load, processing power around. Though they might sound like the same thing to us (e.g. basically you’re saying I shopped online today and shouldn’t have?), the mechanism underlying each of these words might be very different. In this experiment, researchers Shiv and Fedorikhin called it “Processing Resources”.
Heart and Mind in Conflict
Imagine this: you’re taking a psych course and are required to register for these lab studies in order to get credit for the course. You walk in to the lab and the experimenter tells you a 7-digit number that you have to memorize, a number that you have to repeat to the experimenter in another room. You get a map of where you’re supposed to go. Before you go though, go over to the cart and choose a dessert you want! yum. these studies aren’t so bad, are they? You get to pick between chocolate and fruit salad. After you make your choice, you walk over to the second room according to the map, and then recall the 7-digit number you were asked to memorize. You think you’ll still remember the 7-digits?
You do? Good for you! The bad news is that your memorization skills wasn’t what they’re interested in. Instead, what they wanted to know is whether you picked the chocolate or the fruit salad from the dessert cart. They manipulated something else too; they didn’t give everyone 7 digits to remember, some of your classmates only had to remember 2 digits! In a classic cognitive load manipulation study, remembering 7 digits is called “high load”, while remembering 2 digits is called “low load”. (They can also vary the digit-length, ask you to remember words instead of numbers, do math problems, etc.)
As you can imagine, it wasn’t very difficult to remember these digits so most people recalled them perfectly. However, they did find effects on the dessert choices. Those who had to memorize 7 digits were significantly more likely to choose the chocolate than those who memorized 2 digits only. (This is all assuming that chocolate is less healthy than fruit salad; which could very well be another debate for another time). The researchers claim that those in the 7 digit condition used their limited processing resources to memorize the string of numbers, leaving them with less willpower to resist the chocolate temptation. Those in the 2 digit condition, had more willpower left to make the healthier decision by choosing the fruit salad.
More generally, self-control is a limited resource that gets depleted over time. If you need to do something that requires a lot of self-control, conserve your willpower by focusing on that one task. It’s not likely that you would be memorizing some meaningless 7-digit number in your everyday life, but you might have your mind on the news or a family dispute or what to eat for dinner. Know that these concurrent thoughts will be pulling your processing ability away. This might be something to keep in mind as you go christmas shopping: you’re more likely to impulse buy that thing you shouldn’t buy if your mind is loaded with other busy thoughts!
Happy weekend everybody.
Source: Shiv, B.; Fedorikhin, A. “Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 26 (1999).