Spent resources: self-regulatory resource availability affects impulse buying - Vohs & Faber - 2007 - Article


Introduction & Literature

Current technologies stimulate around the clock consumerism, making it difficult to resist impulses to buy things right away, and making it so situational forces can largely govern purchasing behaviour. Research has suggested that this has changed the rate and frequency of impulsive buying.

Impulse buying can be defined as a dominant urge to buy that presents itself suddenly, and does not involve thoughtful consideration. This phenomenon is thus not dependent on the product, but on the consumer, and can occur with any individual. Impulse buying has been shown to be associated with pleasure, in accordance with which Hoch and Loewenstein (1991) formulated their view that consumer decisions are formed by an ever-shifting conflict between desire and willpower. Two mechanisms are highlighted in this view: (1) wanting to buy things and (2) being able to control this desire.

This article focuses on the role of self-control with regards to impulsive spending. There has been previous research that indeed suggests that good self-control decreases impulsive buying, but methodological issues make that there are several alternate explanations for these results.

Self-regulation is thought to have three core ingredients:

Establishing goals/standards

Being aware of the distance between the current status and the goal

Moving towards the goal

    This research utilizes a limited-resource model in which self-regulatory resources are hypothesized to work by substituting undesirable responses with desirable responses. This model thus defines regulatory resources as a limited resource, a claim which is backed-up by research. The authors hypothesize that understanding of how this resource is depleted can help predict when and why impulse buying occurs. In the studies described here they expect that using these resources in a self-control task will increase subsequent impulse buying.

    Experiment 1

    A common self-restraint tactic is to lower one’s valuation of the desired product. In accordance to this it can be expected that diminished self-control resources will make a person willing to pay more for desired products. This was tested in the following manner: (1) Participants watched a 3 minute video in which the research group was instructed to ignore visual cues. (2) Participants filled in the state version of the positive and negative affective schedule (PANAS). And (3) the participants were shown pictures of products and asked to list what they were willing to pay for them. Results indicate that the control group was willing to pay more, proving the hypothesis right.

    Experiment 2

    It is likely that trait impulsivity will also have an effect on the rate of impulse buying. As people with higher impulsivity generally need to exert greater control over their impulses, it can be hypothesized that a decrease in self-regulatory resources will more strongly affect these individuals. This was tested in the following manner: (1) Participants complete the buying impulsiveness scale (BIS). (2) Participants were told to write down their thoughts; the research group was told not to think of a white bear and to mark the paper every time they did. (3) Participants filled in the PANAS. (4) Participants were given an opportunity to spend their earnings. Results show that the research group portrayed more spontaneous buying behaviour, and that this effect was greater with impulsive individuals. There was no significant difference between both groups in the control.

    Experiment 3

    Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999) devised a model (B) similar to that proposed by the authors (A). Namely, they proposed that cognition decides behaviour more than emotion does when someone utilizes self-control. There are three main differences between these models:

    In A self-regulation is a global resource for many acts of self-control. In B it involves only cognitive resources in a consumption decision.

    A predicts current spending behaviour on the basis of earlier self-regulation exercise. in B cognitive resources are depicted as only predictive of consumption choice at that moment.

    A predicts controlled or non-controlled spending. B predicts product choice.

      This experiment is designed to test which model is more accurate. This was tested in the following manner: (1) Participants complete the BIS. (2) Participants are instructed to read multiple pages of dry text; the research group is told to do this in a happy and enthusiastic manner. (3) Participants filled in the PANAS. (4) Participants were given an opportunity to spend their earnings on food items, with half being healthy (cognitive choice) and half being unhealthy (emotional choice). Results showed that the research group bought more of both kinds of items, and that this was more so among highly impulsive individuals.

      General discussion

      Overall these experiments were successful in proving the hypotheses. There are, however, three limitations to this study: (1) It is possible that filling out the PANAS affected subsequent behaviour, (2) no difference was found between impulsive and non-impulsive individuals in the non-depletion condition, and (3) the sample size for experiment 3 was somewhat small.

      The results of experiment 3, that impulsive buying after depletion of self-control is not dependent on the type of product, is supported by various approaches:

      Research that shows that impulsive spending is not caused by a product but by factors within the consumer.

      There are parallels with research of binge-eaters, compulsive buyers, and kleptomaniacs, which show that the quality of product does not matter in these compulsions.

      There is evidence that the “wanting” and “liking”-systems in the brain are separate.

        The failure of finding a difference between impulsive and non-impulsive individuals in the non-depletion condition of experiment 2 does actually make sense. Highly impulsive people are, after all, likely to restrain themselves in a situation with buying opportunities, and should be able to succeed in this when in full possession of their regulatory resources. Studies involving eating show a similar pattern.

        This research successfully adds to the knowledge of theoretical factors that can contribute to situational impulse buying. It was already known that proximity (physical and/or temporal) and mood can be situational causes. The current research adds weakened restraints to this list. Furthermore, information from the participants suggest an interplay between regulatory resources and the strength of the urge towards impulse buying.

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