A 10:30 Cupcake? Don’t Mind If I Do
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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 Ama​zon​.com or sur­round­ed by col­leagues at lunch try­ing to stick to our diet.

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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.

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