If you’ve walked into a chic boutique this holiday season and been handed a glass of champagne and a biscotti by the attentive sales staff, and then walked out wondering how you talked yourself into melting your credit card, there could be a good reason.
And if you later found you couldn’t stay away from the Christmas cookies, there’s an explanation for that as well.
Turns out one tiny luxury can actually increase the desire for more — and decrease the willpower it takes to resist. In what may be bad news during a leaner-than-normal holiday, two Florida marketing researchers say that giving into a small temptation may be the first step down a slippery slope of indulgence.
In a recently released study, professors Juliano Laran of the University of Miami and Chris Janiszewski of the University of Florida Gainesville say they may have uncovered a key to why some people overindulge in fattening foods, buy more than they want, and party more than is good for them — and why others seem immune to such weaknesses. The full report appears in the print edition of the Journal of Consumer Research in April.
The answer, they say, lies in how people manage competing goals like saving versus spending, or eating rich foods versus snacking on carrots.
In a series of eight tests, involving nearly 300 undergraduate students Laran and Janiszewski used chocolate truffles, notoriously rich and creamy candies, to examine what triggers those goals.
They gave the students chocolates and then watched to see whether they ate them – and what happened afterward.
They found that if the goal of indulging was activated — evidenced by the subject eating the truffle — the students tended to keep pursuing that goal until they thought it had been met by eating more truffles and showing a preference for fattier foods.
Conversely, students who resisted the truffle activated the goal of healthy eating and kept pursuing it by choosing healthier foods from a series of food images.
One indulgence deserves another
For those who gave in, it didn’t stop with truffles. In one experiment, Laran and Janiszewski showed that indulging in the first truffle made subjects value non-food consumer luxuries, such as Apple computers, designer shirts, high-end TVs and cruises when compared with resistors when subjects in both conditions were asked how much they wanted a variety of products.
But, in a novel discovery, the researchers also found that once the goal was achieved, it was turned off, and a rebound occurred.
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Students in one group who overindulged in truffles, gorging on three candies to every one eaten by others, were more likely to select a healthful treat — a granola bar — over chocolate chip cookies offered as a thank-you gift on their way out the door.
There was a “rebound effect,” the researchers said, something like a thermostat realizing it made the room hot enough and switching on the air conditioning to cool it down.
In subsequent tests, Laran and Janiszewski teased out the workings of this system, which they call “passive goal guidance.”
As Laran explained it, the results showed that the subjects who were assigned the goal of valuing health were more resistant to junk food. They kept reaching for the healthy eating goal until they achieved it. Those who were given the goal of indulging in subsequent tests kept on indulging until they had indulged enough. But then the rebound set in.
When asked to choose from pictures of various foods which they wanted to eat right now, the truffle resisters kept choosing healthy foods until they “were told ‘Good job, you are eating healthy!’ that is when people felt good about themselves,” Laran said. They reached the goal, and so they shut it off and allowed the submerged goal of indulging rise to the surface.
Laran speculated that this is why dieters so often rebound. They set a goal of losing, say, 10 pounds, reach it, and then unconsciously turn off the goal in favor of a competing one, like eating more.
This finding is consistent with a concept called “induced forgetting,” said Kathleen C. McCulloch, an experimental psychologist at Idaho State University in Pocatello. “It has been shown that if two things conflict, once you complete one goal, it is terminated. It’s turned off.”
However, the passive “rebound effect” is a novel finding, McCulloch said.
Subtle cues can alter desires
The passive goal guidance system is so unconscious, subtle cues can change people’s desires. “I can vary the amount of truffles [people eat] by giving them feedback,” said Laran. “I’ve done experiments in which it takes half a dozen truffles before they want healthy food, or one truffle.”
The cues involve “priming,” a technique of unconsciously creating a goal. For example, in some of these experiments, subjects were “primed” with words like “delightful” to create an indulgence goal and “appropriate” to stoke a resistance goal.
The secret to avoiding switching back to an unhealthy craving is to keep renovating the active goal so you never really reach it, Laran said. Instead of celebrating the 10-pound loss, renovate the goal to losing inches, or performing better in a physical test.
The implications of the passive goal guidance system — if true — go far beyond eating. Resisting tends to create more self-discipline in general — people who resisted the truffle also tended to indicate plans to do more homework in the coming week, for example. Indulging only made them crave more indulgence.
Marketers and retailers often manipulate consumers by tapping into this unconscious system, Laran said. “If a store offers you something nice to start with, and you accept it, it moves you in that direction” of indulgence, or spending, he said.
But “resisting puts you in a general self-control mode,” he said.
Amid a troubled economy, many Americans are being confronted with the need to cut spending. According to the study’s findings, if people become more comfortable with self-denial in general, we may also manage to lose a little weight, too. But we’ll have to watch that rebound.
© 2013 msnbc.com