Nov 24, 2014

    How to avoid impulse buys this holiday season

    THE holiday shopping season approaches. As a psychologist who studies decision-making, I'm aware that marketers know how the mind works, and they aren't hesitant to use that knowledge to stoke consumers' desires and lessen their self-control. Tactics emphasising scarcity ("only 10 TV sets at this price in stock") and delayed cost ("0 per cent interest until 2016") are employed to great effect.

    Such tactics prey on one of the mind's greatest vulnerabilities: the innate human preference for rapid reward, or immediate gratification. For example, most people would opt to receive $20 today rather than $100 in a year even though, logically speaking, an investment guaranteed to quintuple your money in 12 months is hard to beat.

    This phenomenon, known as temporal discounting, often plays a central role in impulse-buying decisions. To the extent that retailers can increase your impatience for reward or otherwise evoke a sense of urgency in you, your belief that a pleasurable expenditure is worthwhile increases, while the rewards of saving and investing that money appear more distant.

    Can we, as shoppers, resist?

    Of course we can. We all have a proclivity for immediate gratification, but we are also capable of self-control. The real question is: How do we ensure that we exercise that control?

    A natural suggestion is to rely on willpower. But when it comes to holiday shopping, that is likely to fail. Research has shown that willpower tends to be limited. Each successful exercise of it actually increases the likelihood of subsequent failure if temptations come in quick succession (like in shopping malls).

    So, rather than trying to override your decision-making impulses, a better strategy might be to try to change them. Recent research suggests that an effective way to do that is by cultivating the emotion of gratitude.

    Psychologists have long known that negative emotions like anger and fear can alter decisions (often for the worse). But, until recently, we hadn't focused on the effects of positive emotions on decision-making.

    The emotion of gratitude, viewed from a cost-benefit perspective, stresses the long-term value of short-term sacrifice (for example, if I'm grateful to you for a favour, I'll work hard to repay it and thereby ensure you'll help me again in the future). Consequently, my colleagues and I suspected that gratitude might also enhance patience and self-control.

    To find out, we asked 75 people to recall and describe in writing one of three events: a time they felt grateful, a time they felt amused or a typical day. We next asked them 27 questions of the form "Would you rather have $X now or $Y in Z days?" where Y was always greater than X, and Z varied from days to months.

    To make the stakes palpable, we sometimes paid actual money. For example, if someone said he'd rather have $55 now as opposed to $75 in 61 days, we handed him the cash.

    Answers to these questions allowed us to calculate how financially patient people were.

    As we reported in an article in Psychological Science earlier this year, those feeling neutral (the ones who described their daily routine) demonstrated the usual preference for immediate reward: On average, they viewed receiving $17 now as equivalent to getting $100 in a year.

    Those feeling happy and amused were similar: On average, they would sacrifice $100 in a year for $18 in the moment.

    But those feeling grateful showed almost double the financial patience. They required $30 in the moment to forgo the $100 reward a year from now. What's more, the amount of patience people possessed was directly tied to how grateful they felt.

    What these findings show is that certain emotions can temporarily enhance self-control by decreasing the desire for immediate gratification. While feeling happy doesn't do much to increase patience, feeling grateful does.

    So if you're looking to avoid impulse buying this year, take time not only to celebrate with your friends and family, but also to count your blessings. You may find that the easiest way to thwart retailers' enticements as you peruse the shopping aisle isn't to try to resist what you want; it's to be thankful for what you have.