A 10:30 Cupcake? Don’t Mind If I Do
Skip to content
Marketing Social Impact Apr 4, 2016

A 10:30 Cupcake? Don’t Mind If I Do

Both consumers and marketers can benefit from knowing when self-control is lowest.

A woman must use self-control in deciding what to eat.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Rima Touré-Tillery

Ayelet Fishbach

We all want to think well of ourselves, whether we are alone at home resisting an impulse buy from Amazon.com or surrounded by colleagues at lunch trying to stick to our diet.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

Self-control can have a major influence on self-image. When we resist that unnecessary purchase or pass on a second slice of cake, we behave in a way that is in line with our values, and we feel good about ourselves.

But we are bombarded with opportunities to splurge, and despite our best efforts, we cannot exercise self-control all the time. A bit of slacking is inevitable. And according to new research from the Kellogg School, it is more likely to occur when we are in the middle of something.

“Actions at the beginning and end of a sequence appear to reflect more on our own personal standards than actions in the middle,” says Maferima Touré-Tillery, an assistant professor of marketing.

That is, we believe that straying from our goals when we are in the middle of a given sequence, whether real or imagined, does not do as much damage to our self-image as succumbing when we first begin, or with the finish line is in sight. It is a finding with implications for everything from personal finance to public health policy.

“Appealing to a person’s desire to think of herself in positive terms proves to be a powerful motivator in the arduous pursuit of long-term goals.”

Mischievous Middle

In a study published a few years ago, Touré-Tillery and Ayelet Fishbach, of the University of Chicago, found that people are more likely to adhere to rules, standards, or traditions at the beginning and end of a sequence of tasks in their pursuit of a goal. For example, Jewish participants were more likely to light Hanukah candles during the first and last nights of the eight-day holiday than during the middle.

The research distinguishes between two dimensions of motivation: outcome-focused motivation, which is the motivation to get it done, and means-focused motivation, which is the motivation to do it right.

“Means-focused motivation is in the service of maintaining a positive image of the self, so we can continue to think of ourselves as good people,” Touré-Tillery says. While the motivation to “get it done” can follow a variety of patterns, Touré-Tillery’s work shows that the motivation to “do it right” is highest at the beginning and end versus in the middle.

Why beginnings and ends? Because they are transitions or break points, we naturally pay more attention to them. In experiments, people are more likely to remember items at the beginning and end of lists than those in the middle. So what we do at the beginning or end weighs more heavily on how we judge both ourselves and others. For example, behaving unethically at the beginning or the end of a sequence is seen as stronger evidence of a dishonest character than if the same transgression were made in the middle. We are familiar, after all, with the importance of making a good first impression and ending on a positive note.

A new study by the same researchers suggests that, even in the absence of real sequences, people rely on the mere notions of beginnings and ends, or first and last to inform their own self-image. And because we judge ourselves more harshly at the beginning or the end of a task, we are also more motivated to keep our long-term goals in mind then.

Caffeine and Candy

In one experiment, the researchers recruited 98 coffee drinkers near a coffee shop. They were shown a “buy 9, get the 10th free” punch card with either one, five, or eight holes punched. Then they were asked to imagine that they had been on a “coffee detox” in an effort to cut back on their caffeine. How bad would they feel about themselves if they nonetheless gave into their temptation to buy a caffeinated coffee?

Participants who were at the beginning or end of their punch cards—that is, people with either a single punch or eight punches—felt worse about purchasing that coffee than those who were in the middle of their punch card. This happened even though the numbers of punches was unrelated to how long the person had been on the detox.

The trend even held when the beginning, middle and end were somewhat arbitrarily assigned to a sequence of time.

In another experiment, the researchers placed Kit Kat bars and raisin packets on a table in a business school hallway. From a previous survey, the researchers knew that two-thirds of MBA students surveyed at the school considered healthy eating to be important.

For the experiment, a different poster hung behind the table around lunchtime each day, reading either, “Start your afternoon! Grab a snack,” “Keep your day going! Grab a snack,” or “End your morning! Grab a snack.”

Of the 163 MBA students who unknowingly participated, 22 percent chose the healthy snack after seeing the middle “keep your day going” message, compared with 40 percent who saw the “start” message and 46 percent who saw the “end” message.

The results show that framing something as being at the beginning or end of an arbitrarily selected time period “promotes self-control,” Touré-Tillery says.

The Importance of Goals in Self-Control

A key factor in how susceptible people are to these manipulations is how committed they are to a specific goal, which is an indication of how much their self-image is tied to achieving that goal. Take fiscal responsibility, for example.

The researchers had 223 undergraduate students complete a survey that assessed their level of commitment to financial goals and asked how much they would be willing to pay for various items. The participants filled out one of three surveys titled either, “Start of quarter shopping,” “Middle of year shopping,” or “End of quarter shopping.”

Participants were willing to spend less money at the beginning or end compared with the middle, but only when saving money was important to them. Strikingly, people were equally willing to splurge in the middle condition, regardless of their level of commitment to financial goals. Another experiment looked at people with healthy-eating goals and showed similar results.

“Taken together, the findings show that people who are strongly committed to a goal are more likely to exercise restraint when they think that their behavior is more reflective of their self-image,” meaning at the beginning or end of a time frame, Touré-Tillery says.

How to Frame Messages

The findings could have powerful implications for marketers who, with a few simple wording changes, could dial up or down their audience’s willingness to abandon health goals or spend money. For example, a candy-bar commercial could announce, “Keep your day going!” or a car dealership might have more success on Labor Day weekend by announcing, “Unbeatable mid-year deals!”

By the same token, public health campaigns could boost their impact by framing their messages at the beginning or end of a sequence. For example, antismoking ads could urge addicts to “Start a new beginning” or “End the year with positive change.”

Touré-Tillery hopes this research is used to bring out the best in people. Triggering people to be more aware of their own self-image by framing something as happening at the beginning or end may encourage them to make positive changes in their lives. This could be an important step toward combating worldwide rises in personal debt or the global obesity epidemic.

Although the current research focused on health, financial, and intellectual goals, the researchers expect their findings to hold in any context that poses a trade-off between short-term desires and long-term interests.

“On a practical note, our findings suggest educators, parents, managers, and public policy makers could promote greater adherence to important goals by triggering concerns about self-image,” Touré-Tillery says. “Appealing to a person’s desire to think of herself in positive terms proves to be a powerful motivator in the arduous pursuit of long-term goals.”

About the Writer
Janelle Weaver is a freelance science writer and editor who lives in Carbondale, Colorado.
About the Research

Touré-Tillery, Maferima, and Ayelet Fishbach. 2015. “It Was(n’t) Me: Exercising Restraint when Choices Appear Self-diagnostic. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. How Much Do Boycotts Affect a Company’s Bottom Line?
    There’s often an opposing camp pushing for a “buycott” to support the company. New research shows which group has more sway.
    grocery store aisle where two groups of people protest. One group is boycotting, while the other is buycotting
  2. 5 Takeaways on the State of ESG Investing
    ESG investing is hot. But what does it actually deliver for society and for shareholders?
    watering can pouring over windmills
  3. Could Bringing Your "Whole Self" to Work Curb Unethical Behavior?
    Organizations would be wise to help employees avoid compartmentalizing their personal and professional identities.
    A star employee brings her whole self to work.
  4. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  5. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  6. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  7. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  8. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  9. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  10. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  11. Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
  12. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  13. Your Team Doesn’t Need You to Be the Hero
    Too many leaders instinctively try to fix a crisis themselves. A U.S. Army colonel explains how to curb this tendency in yourself and allow your teams to flourish.
    person with red cape trying to put out fire while firefighters stand by.
  14. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  15. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  16. In a World of Widespread Video Sharing, What’s Real and What’s Not?
    A discussion with a video-authentication expert on what it takes to unearth “deepfakes.”
    A detective pulls back his computer screen to reveal code behind the video image.
More in Marketing