Why guilt doesn't keep some of us from making the same mistakes twice

August 07, 2007

Many of us experience a tinge of guilt as we delight in feelings of pleasure from our favorite indulgences, like splurging on an expensive handbag or having another drink. We make resolutions: this will be the last time, positively. Yet, in spite of documented ambivalence towards temptation and well-meaning vows not to succumb again, consumers often end up repeating the same or similar choices. A new study by Suresh Ramanathan (University of Chicago) and Patti Williams (Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania) examines repeated impulsive behavior despite the presence of guilt - important research underscored by the increasing prevalence of binge drinking, obesity, and credit card debt.

While most published research has examined the emotional consequences of self-control lapses, Ramanathan and Williams expand the literature by studying the affective outcomes of indulgent consumption as it unfolds over time. In two studies, they examine the immediate and delayed emotional consequences of engaging in indulgent consumption among both prudent and impulsive consumers.

Significantly, the researchers find that both impulsive and prudent consumers experience a mixture of positive and negative emotions immediately after consuming a food indulgence. However, the components of the emotional ambivalence are different across the two groups.

"While the impulsive consumers do feel negative emotions such as stress, they do not feel much guilt or regret," the authors reveal.

Further, the time course of these emotions is different across the two types of consumers. Impulsive people continue to feel residual effects of their positive emotions over time, but experience a sharp decline in their negative emotions. Prudent people continue to experience strong negative and self-conscious emotions, but report significantly lower levels of positive emotions.

"Thus, over time, impulsive consumers are left only with their positive feelings about indulging, while prudent consumers are left only with their negative feelings about indulging. This, in turn, affects propensity to repeat an act of indulgence," the authors explain.

Therefore, impulsive consumers are much more likely to engage in a second indulgent act over time than are prudent consumers. The authors also find differences in the extent to which people take actions to undo their emotional ambivalence. After indulging once, prudent consumers are more likely than impulsive consumers to seize an opportunity to make a utilitarian choice.

"Impulsive people may be more comfortable with duality or conflict, or may be more resigned to the experience of such conflict," the authors conclude. "Prudent people, on the other hand, seem to be more eager to seize the chance to launder their negative emotions."
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Suresh Ramanathan and Patti Williams. "Immediate and Delayed Emotional Consequences of Indulgence: The Moderating Influence of Personality Type on Mixed Emotions," Journal of Consumer Research: August 2007.

University of Chicago Press Journals

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