According to new research from the Yale School of Management, even health food stores should stock a few indulgences.
The study, entitled “Self-Signaling and the Costs and Benefits of Temptation in Consumer Choice,” is the first to find empirical evidence that resisting temptation can provide psychological benefits. The study, which will appear in the February issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, demonstrated that subjects felt better acting virtuously when tempted by a vice than when no vice was present, and both of the study’s authors said the findings have important implications for product marketing.
The researchers ran five trials, each examining how subjects’ satisfaction with the items that they did select changed with the items they did not select. In one setup, half of the subjects indicated whether they would be happier choosing a virtuous item like prunes when the prunes were surrounded by either a mix of prunes and tempting cookies — a vice — or just prunes. The other half of the subjects considered an opposite scenario, choosing between consuming cookies alone or cookies surrounded in part by prunes. In all five trials, subjects said it would be more satisfying to consume a virtue in the presence of a vice and to choose a vice without a virtuous option available.
Because the physical effect of consuming an item does not change depending on the goods surrounding it, Klaus Wertenbroch, a co-author of the study and professor of marketing at INSEAD, said the study is evidence that the ability to resist temptation heightens overall satisfaction through the “self signal” of restraint. While the psychological theory of self-signaling — that individuals learn about their own characters from their decisions — has existed for more than a decade, Wertenbroch said this study is the first to provide empirical evidence for its existence.
“We are showing, essentially, that giving in or resisting temptation has either costs or benefits that are of a psychological nature going beyond the utility that you might actually get from the product that you consume,” he said. “When you chose a vice in the presence of a virtue, you have to tell yourself that you fail to resist temptation, that you didn’t have enough willpower. That feels much worse than if you chose a vice when there is no virtue in the choice set.”
Both Wertenbroch and co-author Ravi Dhar, a professor of management and marketing at the SOM, said that the ability of individuals to gain utility from resisting temptation has important implications for marketing goods to consumers.
“We say by strategically putting some unhealthy food in a health food store, you could actually make people feel better about themselves and charge higher prices,” Dhar said.
Dhar added that the idea for the study arose from a comment that Wertenbroch made about how he felt better about not smoking on days when other people around him chose to — a form of a self-signaling.
For Wertenbroch, the appeal of the project comes from the fact that so many people experience the benefits of temptation self-selection.
“What I like about the basic effect is that I have yet to come across someone who basically didn’t share the same intuition,” he said. “I think it’s a very intuitive finding, yet one that people had not really predicted before. [Ravi and I] were just throwing thoughts around and we hit upon this intuition of [prunes and cookies].”
Nathan Novemsky, a professor of marketing at the SOM, said that the study raises the interesting question of whether individuals will put themselves in situations with temptations just to achieve the self-signaling benefits of rejected temptation.
“When people are facing choices, do they want a choice set that includes a chocolate cake? Do they intuit this effect? Maybe I want to walk into that place that has chocolate cake knowing that I can reject it,” Novemsky said.
One of the trials was conducted at both Payne Whitney Gymnasium and Yankee Doodle Coffee Shop, which was located at 258 Elm St. and closed in 2008.