Goal success or failure

Study finds how consumers respond to an initial slip
is key to long-term outcome

Yael Zemack-Rugar
Marketing assistant professor Yael Zemack-Rugar
focuses her research on various contexts of
sequential choice in a project with Pamplin
marketing professor David Brinberg and Canan Corus
of Pace University.

Eat better. Get fit. Save money. Months after New Year’s, how are you and your resolutions doing?

Despite our vows, many of us succumb to some temptations some of the time — we eat the donut or buy the pricey designer jeans — but whether we end up failing at our larger goals, researchers say, depends on what happens next.

“After all, one does not become obese from one donut, nor does one fall into severe debt from one impulsive purchase,” says assistant professor of marketing Yael Zemack-Rugar.

“Almost every choice consumers make is made in the context of a previous choice,” she argues. “Yet, much consumer research looks at choices in isolation, exploring only ‘one-shot’ effects.”

Zemack-Rugar, whose research focuses on various contexts of sequential choice, says how consumers respond to failure is the key to understanding the long-term impact of such failure.

“For example, when individuals have a dieting goal but end up eating a tempting donut at the morning meeting, they have two choices: course correct by carefully monitoring their intake for the rest of the day, or give up on the goal entirely.

“Those who course correct may suffer less of the negative long-term consequences of the initial failure. Those who do not course correct may be more at risk for obesity, debt, and the like.”

The "what-the-hell" effect

Zemack-Rugar headed a research project, in collaboration with Canan Corus (Ph.D., MKTG ’08), of Pace University, and Pamplin marketing professor David Brinberg, examining consumer behavior following an initial self-control failure.

Scholars, she notes, have dubbed the choice to give up on the goal following an initial failure the “what-the-hell” effect — individuals think, “What the hell, my dieting goal is already shot for the day, I may as well enjoy dessert for lunch!”

Says Zemack-Rugar: “Our research shows that the tendency to enact the what-the-hell effect versus course correction is a consistent one. This is a decision we make not only within a given goal or situation, such as eating, but also across situations. This means that once we fail, if we tend to ‘what-the-hell’ regarding our dieting goal, we will also tend to do so regarding our budgeting, academic, and even honesty goals.”

Response to failure diagram

In a series of studies, she and her co-authors confirm that people respond to failure consistently, across time and domains. The researchers identify a set of key cognitive and emotional responses to initial failure that jointly predict post-failure behavior and develop a scale that captures these emotions and cognitions.

“Our scale can be used to predict who is likely to try harder to achieve their goal following failure and who is more likely to adopt the what-the-hell approach and give up on their goal.”

Improving sequential self-control

The scale also provides useful tools for consumers or consumer advocates and programs to improve sequences of consumer choice and avoid the what-the-hell effect.

“For example,” she says, “providers of weight management services can use the scale to help members determine how they are likely to respond to an initial failure at their dieting goals and assist them in staying focused or getting back on track. Financial education services can use the scale to identify and help clients who are likely to adopt the what-the-hell response after an initial failure in staying on budget.”

Zemack-Rugar adds: “One of the things the scale teaches us is that setting goals with a longer time frame (weekly or monthly) is more likely to help us course correct after an initial failure than framing goals in the short term (daily). Such programs can train consumers to think about their goals in new ways, thus helping them stay on track.”

Staying on track is important, as consumers commonly fail to attain goals that require sequential self-control. Studies have found that 80 percent of smokers resume smoking and 80 percent of dieters gain their weight back. Failure at sequential self-control can have significant consequences, she says, citing as examples, the “massive amounts of debt” American consumers owe and the nation’s obesity epidemic. “Our research extends the field’s understanding of sequential self-control behavior.”

The article, “The ‘Response-to-Failure’ Scale: Predicting Behavior Following Initial Self-Control Failure,” was published recently in the Journal of Marketing Research.


Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Magazine Spring 14

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