By Joachim Vosgerau, Ph.D.
Self-control is a prominent topic in consumer research. Among short-sighted behaviors such as overspending, lack of exercising, and procrastinating, overeating is probably the most studied. Many studies have investigated the impact of situational factors, marketing stimuli, and individual consumer characteristics on the choice, purchase, and consumption of food.
My co-authors Irene Scopelliti and Young Eun Huh and I reviewed nearly 300 of these studies (read our full paper here), and in 96% of them exerting self-control was represented as the sacrifice of pleasure: In the typical self-control experiment, participants are given a choice between a hedonic food – or ‘vice food’ – containing high amounts of sodium, fat, and/or sugar (e.g., chocolate, cake, chips, ice cream, soft drinks, French fries, doughnuts, hamburgers, or pizza), and a utilitarian food – or ‘virtue food’ (e.g., fruit salad, apples, yoghurt, raisins, vegetables, salad, cereals, carrots, bananas, water, and fruit juice). The choice of the hedonic food is interpreted as a self-control failure.
We believe this “self-control = sacrifice of pleasure” conceptualization to be deeply flawed, because it assumes
- that all consumers trade-off the short-term goal of pleasure with the long-term goal of health;
- that the absence of a self-control conflict would inevitably result in the choice of a virtue/utilitarian food;
- that all consumption of hedonic food represents a breakdown in self-control.
Before we take a closer look at the plausibility or these three assumptions, we first review the foundational theories of self-control in psychology and economics.
What is Self-Control?
Self-control describes the sacrifice of immediate, short-term gratification in service of more important, long-term benefits. All theories of self-control are based on this idea of opposing preferences, and – starting with Sigmund Freud – many philosophers, psychologists, and economists have conceptualized them as a conflict between different selves within a person, such as a conflict between a ‘now’ self and a ‘future’ self. The ‘now’ self prefers consuming a tempting good now, but the ‘future’ self would regret having consumed the tempting good in the past. According to this conceptualization, self-control conflicts are characterized by three criteria: time-inconsistent preferences, a hierarchy of preferences, and anticipated regret.
The conceptualization of self-control as two co-existing but opposing forces (or selves) implies that preferences change over time. The smoker enjoys a cigar in the evening, but upon waking up in the morning with a sore throat prefers he had not smoked the evening before.
Hierarchy of Preferences
The hierarchy of preferences denotes an asymmetry in the importance of the two opposing preferences or selves. The importance of the self that demands immediate gratification fades quickly as time passes, giving way to the self that serves long-term goals. A dieter may yield to the temptation of having a cheesecake, but at the end of the evening regrets having eaten it. Since her/his long-term preference (a health-goal) is superordinate to her/his short-term preference (immediate gratification), exerting self-control would mean resolving the self-control conflict in favor of the health-goal. This hierarchy of preferences characterizes all forms of self-control conflicts, whether they involve food or drug consumption, exercise, sex, anger, aggression, and possibly also ethical conflicts that involve selfish motives.
Because self-control conflicts are characterized by hierarchical and conflicting short- and long-term preferences, one expects to regret resolving a self-control conflict in favor of immediate gratification. Smoking a cigarette provides pleasure to the smoker, but brings with it a sore throat immediately after smoking, and potentially cancer in the long term. Knowing this, the smoker who anticipates that he may regret giving into the temptation of smoking a cigarette is experiencing a self-control conflict. If he does not anticipate regret but instead experiences it at a later point in time (e.g., when being diagnosed with cancer), he would retroactively experience a self-control conflict.
Let’s now take a closer look at the three assumptions of the “self-control = sacrifice of pleasure” conceptualizations.
Not All Consumers Pursue the Same Superordinate Long-Term Goals
Most studies of self-control in food consumption assume that all participants share the same preference hierarchy, represented by the conflicting short- and long-term goals of pleasure and health. There is, however, a multitude of reasons other than temptation why a consumer would choose one food over the other. Consider the choice between pizza (hedonic option) and grilled chicken salad (utilitarian). A consumer may choose the former but not necessarily experience a self-control failure because she does not care about restraining her calorie intake, or because she is a vegetarian, or because she likes pizza more than salad. In all these cases, the two options do not pose a self-control conflict. Or imagine a struggling recently converted vegetarian who is tempted by the chicken but knows she will regret choosing it because her long-term goal is to avoid meat consumption. Her choosing the chicken, rather than the pizza, would represent a self-control failure.
Consumers May not Perceive Pleasure and Health to Be in Conflict
Even though American consumers in general believe the better a food tastes the less healthy it is, in a recent cross-national survey conducted in the US, UK, France and Belgium, consumers associated ‘unhealthy’ only weakly with ‘tasty’. Some consumers are ‘virtue lovers’ and exhibit the opposite pattern of associations, that is, they perceive healthy food as tastier than unhealthy food. This has been documented for dieters and French consumers. Clearly not all consumers perceive health and pleasure to be in conflict.
Self-Control ≠ Sacrifice of Pleasure
Even if consumers perceive pleasure and health to be in conflict, and these motives correspond to their short- and long-term goals, choosing the hedonic option may not denote a self-control failure. For example, a self-controlled consumer may choose a hedonic option over a utilitarian option without experiencing regret if she deems the cost of that single indulgence negligible.
Likewise, some consumers, so-called tightwads, are tempted by frugality (i.e., this is their short-term goal) and find it difficult to spend money, and need self-control to overcome their frugality and approach indulgence that would contribute to their well-being (indulgence is in line with their long-term best interests). For other consumers, so-called spendthrifts, the opposite is true – saving money requires self-control as their short-term goal/impulse is spending it.
Why does it Matter?
If “self-control = sacrifice of pleasure,” policy-makers’ task would be to discourage consumers from consuming hedonic foods. The “self-control = violation of a superordinate long-term goal” conceptualization would recommend very different policies. First, this conceptualization questions whether consumer behavior researchers and psychologists have the expertise to be in a position to tell consumers what to eat or to define what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. We believe this task falls within the expertise of nutritionists, biologists, and medical professionals. These professionals can determine which foods in which quantities are objectively good or bad for us, provide recommendations regarding consumption amounts, advice consumers on their ideal level of physical activity, etc.
The task of consumer behavior researchers, psychologists, and behavioral economists is to study the antecedents and consequences of the experience of self-control conflicts and failures. From this research we can glean important insights on how to help consumers align their goals and actual behavior with objective criteria of a healthy lifestyle. For example, consumer behavior researchers can devise interventions that motivate consumers to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. They can design interventions that facilitate the anticipation of regret. They can help consumers realize that they have a self-control problem.
Behavioral researchers can also encourage consumers to view their food consumption as part of a holistic consumption episode rather than as isolated consumption instances. They can help design choice architectures that make superordinate long-term goals more salient and minimize the influence of short-term goals and impulsivity.
Based on our theorizing, it should also be easier to exert self-control when abandoning the idea that hedonic consumption represents a self-control failure. For example, rather than categorizing foods into good and bad, consumers could train themselves to use relative quantities as a benchmark for harmful consumption. Rationing portion sizes and consumption frequency are indeed powerful strategies to limit food-intake because how much we eat is as much governed by a food’s tastiness as by serving size. Compared to the US, French portion sizes are smaller in comparable restaurants, in supermarkets, and in cookbooks. The authors of this study concluded “Ironically, although the French eat less than Americans, they seem to eat for a longer period of time, and hence have more food experience. The French can have their cake and eat it as well.” In the same vein, the psychologist and behavioral economist George Loewenstein argues that “the best policies for combatting problems such as obesity and undersaving are not those that enhance self-control but those that remove the need for it.”
Finally, consumers may be able to directly reduce the desirability of a food by changing their preferences. It may be possible to train oneself to reduce liking of foods that are full of salt, fat, and sugar, and instead to start liking foods that are usually considered virtues, such as vegetables, salads, fish, and seafood, etc. In other words, consumers may be successful in changing their perception of foods such that the healthier is the food the more pleasure is derived from eating it. Interestingly, this would also be more in accordance with the original meaning of the word “virtue”. In Aristotelian ethics, humans do not engage in virtuous acts by forgoing pleasure, rather, pleasure is derived from acting virtuously.