Free will in consumer behavior: self-control, ego depletion, and choice

Title: Free will in consumer behavior: self-control, ego depletion, and choice

Authors: Roy F. Baumeister, Erin A. Sparks, Tyler F. Stillman, Florida State University, Tallahassee; Kathleen D. Vohs, University of Minnesota

Publication: Journal of Consumer Psychology

Year: 2008

Focus Area: Decision Making, Consumer Behavior, Self-control

Relevance: People with compromised capacity to make rational rather than impulsive decisions may be particularly vulnerable to fraud. Fraud prevention efforts may be better able to encourage good decision making by understanding what factors influence a person’s ability to successfully exercise willpower and good decision making.

Summary: This paper argues that free will is best understood as an evolutionarily adaptive ability to exercise self-control, follow rules, and make smart choices. This capacity for willpower functions like a muscle; it therefore has limited capacity and can be depleted and restored.

  • Exercising self-control (e.g. resisting the temptation to eat cookies, or trying to control an emotional response to a film) in one task reduces subjects’ ability to exercise it in subsequent tasks. The authors term this “ego depletion.” People in a state of “ego depletion” are more likely to make impulse-driven decisions. People can still exercise self-control when in this depleted state; several short-term antidotes to depletion have been tested, such as cash incentives and thinking about one’s life values, which increase the demonstrated ability to exercise self control when in a state of ego depletion.
  • Similarly, making “effortful choices,” those that involve a large number of decisions or choices with no clear answer, also causes ego depletion.
  • Poor ability to exercise self-control and ego depletion are linked with low blood glucose. In one experiment, a glass of lemonade with sugar was enough to eliminate the effect of subjects’ self control being worn out.

Author Abstract: Consumer behavior offers a useful window on human nature, through which many distinctively human patterns of cognition and behavior can be observed. Consumer behavior should therefore be of central interest to a broad range of psychologists. These patterns include much of what is commonly understood as free will. Our approach to understanding free will sidesteps metaphysical and theological debates. Belief in free will is pervasive in human social life and contributes to its benefits. Evolution endowed humans with a new form of action control, which is what people understand by free will. Its complexity and flexibility are suited to the distinctively human forms of social life in culture, with its abstract rules, expanded time span, diverse interdependent roles, and other sources of opportunities and constraints. Self-control, planful action, and rational choice are vital forms of free will in this sense. The capacity for self-control and intelligent decision making involves a common, limited resource that uses the body’s basic energy supply. When this resource is depleted, self-control fails and decision making is impaired.

© 2007 Society for Consumer Psychology. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Full Article

How Emotion Shapes Behavior: Feedback, Anticipation, and Reflection, Rather Than Direct Causation

Authors: Roy F. Baumeister, Florida State University; Kathleen D. Vohs, University of Minnesota; C. Nathan DeWall, Florida State University; Liqing Zhang, Peking University

Publication: Personality and Social Psychology Review

Year: 2007

Focus Area: Emotion, Decision Making

Relevance: Both perpetrators of fraud and those working to prevent it take advantage of the power of emotion in shaping behavior. Anticipation of regret is a powerful force that may prevent people from halting participation in a fraud, even if they have suspicions it may be fraud –the anticipation of regret associated with giving up on a legitimate opportunity may be worse than the anticipation of regret if one continues with what may be a scam.

Summary: This article argues that emotion does not cause behavior, but rather influences behavior as a feedback mechanism. Anticipation of emotion strongly influences behavior; emotions also functions as feedback that enable people to learn from past actions. (The article distinguishes automatic affective responses from more conscious emotion.)

  • Emotion does impact behavior, though usually indirectly. Emotion may hamper cognitive processing, encourage foolish risk taking, and distort perceptions of likelihood – e.g. an angry person will estimate the odds of being cheated by a car salesman as higher than a sad person.
  • Behavior can be understood as pursuing emotion as a desired outcome. Anticipated emotion often leads to caution and choosing the safe, readily defensible option.
  • Emotions function to provide feedback and evaluate a given behavior or course of action.
  • Anticipation of regret is powerful: Most people refused an offer of a small cash incentive to trade a lottery ticket they had been given, for another with the same statistical probability of winning. “The only reason to refuse this advantageous trade was the anticipation of regret one might feel if one traded away the winning lottery ticket.”

Author Abstract: Fear causes fleeing and thereby saves lives: this exemplifies a popular and common sense but increasingly untenable view that the direct causation of behavior is the primary function of emotion. Instead, the authors develop a theory of emotion as a feedback system whose influence on behavior is typically indirect. By providing feedback and stimulating retrospective appraisal of actions, conscious emotional states can promote learning and alter guidelines for future behavior. Behavior may also be chosen to pursue (or avoid) anticipated emotional outcomes. Rapid, automatic affective responses, in contrast to the full-blown conscious emotions, may inform cognition and behavioral choice and thereby help guide current behavior. The automatic affective responses may also remind the person of past emotional outcomes and provide useful guides as to what emotional outcomes may be anticipated in the present. To justify replacing the direct causation model with the feedback model, the authors review a large body of empirical findings.

Full Article

Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavior Change

Authors: Albert Bandura, Stanford University

Publication: Psychological Review

Year: 1977

Focus Area: Prevention, Decision Making

Relevance: Performing tasks – rather than watching others perform them – was more effective in increasing self-efficacy and helping people overcome a phobia. Prevention programs may be able to take advantage of this technique to help people take action to prevent fraud. For example, some studies show that people can identify a scam phone call and know that they should hang up, but cannot get themselves to follow through on that action in the moment.

Summary: Bandura addresses an apparent conflict in behavior change – whether change happens through decisions (cognitive processes) or through repetition of actions (procedures). Bandura proposes that these two methods are part of a common mechanism – that cognitive processes lead to change, but that actions are necessary to start those cognitive processes.

• Self-efficacy is a person’s own beliefs about their ability to do a task or activity. A person’s self-efficacy may not reflect their actual ability in that specific realm. Self-efficacy is more focused than self-esteem or confidence, which are broader terms that refer to beliefs about self-worth and strength of belief, respectively.
• This study tested the ability of snake phobics to overcome their fear of snakes through two different therapeutic methods: one in which the subject performed “progressively more threatening interactions with a boa constrictor”, and one in which the subject watched a therapist perform those tasks. There was also a control group that had no treatment.
• The subjects who performed the tasks themselves had better self-efficacy when faced with snakes in a follow-up test. They were also able to generalize this self-efficacy to other kinds of snakes and other situations that had not been part of the therapy.

Author Abstract: The present article presents an integrative theoretical framework to explain and to predict psychological changes achieved by different modes of treatment. This theory states that psychological procedures, whatever their form, alter the level and strength of self-efficacy. It is hypothesized that expectations of personal efficacy determine whether coping behavior will be initiated, how much effort will be expended, and how long it will be sustained in the face of obstacles and aversive experiences. Persistence in activities that are subjectively threatening but in fact relatively safe produces, through experiences of mastery, further enhancement of self-efficacy and corresponding reductions in defensive behavior. In the proposed model, expectations of personal efficacy are derived from four principal sources of information: performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological states. The more dependable the experiential sources, the greater are the changes in perceived self-efficacy. A number of factors are identified as influencing the cognitive processing of efficacy information arising from enactive, vicarious, exhortative, and emotive sources. The differential power of diverse therapeutic procedures in analyzed in terms of the postulated cognitive mechanism of operation. Findings are reported from microanalyses of enactive, vicarious, and emotive of treatment that support the hypothesized relationship between perceived self-efficacy and behavioral change. Possible directions for further research are discussed.

Full Article