Battling for balance

Room for dessert? Frank May, assistant professor of marketing, found that memory is not always reliable when consumers make the decision to splurge.

Greg Jenkins

Frank May

As consumers, we face conflicting desires daily. Have the cake, or stick to the diet? Buy the pricey shoes, or stay on budget? Indulge, or practice self-control?

Studies have shown that people will give in to indulgence when they perceive that they have made sufficient progress toward a goal that involves self-control, said marketing assistant professor Frank May.

Other consumer behavior research, he said, has suggested that people are prone to distort their memories in a motivated manner. For example, after picking one option over another, consumers are likely to “manufacture” negative aspects for the option they didn’t choose in order to feel happier about their choice, he said.

Caving to the craving

Building on those research results, a recent study by May shows that when given an opportunity to indulge, people may distort their memories, so that they believe they have made enough progress on their goals to justify treating themselves.

“In other words, consumers may trick themselves into thinking something like, ‘I’ve been good on my diet lately, so I can have this piece of cake,’” May said.

“Across four studies in the areas of eating, spending, and studying, we find individuals distort their memories of past indulgences when faced with an opportunity to indulge, which in turn leads to greater levels of indulgence.”

In addition, his research finds that impulsive individuals — those who tend toward sudden and spontaneous actions — are more likely to engage in memory distortions.

Defending the dalliance

chocolate layer cake

By “memory distortion,” May said he is referring to the idea that “memories of past behavior may change, depending on what is happening in the present.”

For instance, he said, “a cheeseburger consumed in the past may be perceived as high in calories when there is no immediate opportunity to indulge but as low in calories in the presence of an upcoming indulgence. Under certain conditions, the same person may remember the same event differently.”

His study results, May said, suggest that “consumers, especially those who are highly impulsive, would do well to take steps to accurately remember past indulgences.”

They could, for example, keep a journal documenting their past indulgences as well as self-control successes. “Consumers can consult their journals to counter the distorted memories that lead to poor decisions in the present,” May said.

Breeding better habits

Businesses can benefit, May said, by sending consumers reminders to encourage self-control behavior.

Bank managers seeking to boost deposits might remind customers of the time that has passed since the last savings deposit. Gym managers might email customers when they had their last workouts.

Teachers may promote studying behavior by periodically having students evaluate their study habits.

Taking small actions to remember past self-control behavior in an unbiased manner, whether initiated by consumers, businesses, or others, can help alleviate the problems associated with self-control failure, May said.

May’s study, “Licensing Indulgence in the Present by Distorting Memories of Past Behavior,” co-authored with Caglar Irmak, of the University of Miami, was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.


Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Magazine Spring 2016

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