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