How the Different Voices in Your Head Affect What You Eat, Drink, Wear, Drive, and Buy

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A new study tries to explain the complicated reasons for how people make decisions to consume everything from Doritos to hybrid cars, Victoria’s Secret lingerie to New Balance sneakers.

In their paper “Talking to Ourselves: A Dialogical Exploration of Consumption Experiences”, published by the Journal of Consumer Research, Shalini Bahl and George R. Milne describe how each person has different “selves,” which are basically the different parts of your personality—you know, the voices in your brain telling you what to do or not do. These selves are often at odds with each other, and so when one self gets its way by say, smoking a cigarette or scarfing down a third brownie, the other more responsible and prudent selves may be angry or disappointed.

Here’s an example from the paper, which studies the various selves of six different people. Below are the selves inside one of the people studied named Brad, who has a very complicated relationship with donuts. (I swear, this Brad is not me; my relationship with donuts is Homer-esque, one of pure love and affection.) Here’s how each of Brad’s selves feels about donuts:

Athletic self: What a waste, eat something healthier. Do something that’s better for performance.

Closed self: Like yesterday I was really annoyed and it’s like, “oh! Gotta get a donut, grab a donut, it’ll be okay . . . I
need them.” It’s the comfort food thing again.

Critical self: Donuts, what the hell are you doing? Donuts, what a waste! You’re fat. Like you know no girl will ever like you.

Open self: Donuts taste good. Donuts are fun. Donuts are fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. Enjoy it for a second and get back to what you’re doing.

Spiritual self: They are neither bad nor good, better or worse, pretty neutral. You just don’t want donuts in those moments [from spiritual self perspective]. It doesn’t even make sense. It’s like you were stuck living in Alaska and you want to go to Antarctica.

You can gather that these selves (and all of your selves too) often don’t agree, and so, with every little decision we make to consume or not consume, there’s some conflict—sometimes, a whole lot of conflict. You can understand why it can be difficult to be at peace with your decisions before, during, and after you’ve made them.

I asked Shalini Bahl, one of the paper’s authors and the founder of iAM Business Consulting, about the dysfunctional ways each of us makes consumption decisions—and about if it was possible to put your toughest, smartest consumer self in control of the decision-making process when, say, browsing at the mall.

Everyone has seen on TV and the movies the classic portrayal of the inner dialog, in which a character listens to his own little devil on one shoulder and the little angel on the other. I’m thinking of scenes in “Tom & Jerry” and “Animal House,” which should give you an idea about my cultural tastes. Is this even close to how people really think, and how they make decisions — in your line of study, in how they buy and consume? Or is this much too simplistic a portrayal of how things work?

Shalini Bahl: The devil and angel depiction is indeed very simplistic. Multiple selves can be better understood as different positions or worldviews or voices shaped by significant experiences in a person’s life. For example, because of the important people, events, body orientation, and consumption experiences I have a constellation of selves including the ideal Indian daughter, an American wife, a mother, spiritual being, a perfectionist, mindful consultant, adventurer, etc. These different selves have their own worldviews, some of which may overlap and some may conflict and some may be indifferent to others. As such they may have inconsistent preferences. For example, the Indian daughter’s preferences may be inconsistent with the American wife. In cases of inconsistent preferences there are different ways in which my selves can interact to arrive at a consumption decision. The six different ways we found in our study are described in the paper — compassion, compartmentalization, negotiation, coalition, opposition, and domination.

How would you describe how the various “selves” within each person co-exist? Are they in competition with each other? Are they like roommates trying to share the same space? Is it a democracy, with each “self” getting to weigh in before a decision is made? Or do certain kinds of “selves” tend to dominate the decision-making process?

SB: In different people the selves co-exist in different ways. As such it could be any combination of possibilities you suggested. You can think of it like a family of selves or society of selves. In some families one member dominates, while in others all may have an equal say or at different times different people have a say. Whatever exists at the level of individual self also exists at the macro levels of a family, society, and this world, or you can think of it the other way around — whatever exists at the macro level of the world, also exists at the micro level of the individual.

Most of the people in the experiment have conflicted feelings about their consumption of things like donuts, Doritos, and cigarettes. The rational decision would be to avoid those things and just stick with only the products and activities that you have overwhelmingly positive feelings about. But people don’t do that. Why is that?

SB: The rational thing to do would be to avoid things involving conflict only if there was one self. Since there are multiple selves — one really wanting the thing and the other wanting to avoid the consumption — who decides what is rational — the desiring self or the avoiding self? The rational decision for the desiring self is to consume and for the avoiding self is to avoid. Which is why there will have to be some kind of dialog between conflicting selves to arrive at a decision.

Consumers want to be happy — to have positive feelings about what and how they consume — so what kind of voices/selves would be ideal to have in control of the decision making when you’re at the supermarket, the mall, or the car dealer showroom? Is there any way that a person could put the more responsible, prudent, hardnosed-negotiating self in charge when the time comes?

SB: The initial findings in our study suggest that decisions based on domination – where one self gains dominance by suppressing other voices – are generally not satisfactory. Even when the dominating self was a desirable self, like the goal oriented or strong selves and these are perceived to be positive selves in American culture, consumption decisions driven by dominant selves can lead to extreme behaviors which caused the people some pain. For example, Jessica, a business student, was driven by her goal oriented self to take extra classes because if she rests she feels she will get lazy and this makes her feel burnt out in the end. Where as if her goal oriented self did allow other voices to speak up who are asking for a break, the negotiated course of action may have been better for her.

Our study suggests that consumers need to attend to all voices and then use compassion, negotiation, or coalition to arrive at decisions that are more satisfactory. The difficulty is that in the absence of self awareness we don’t even know that we have these different voices and very often one voice becomes the dominant voice making all the decisions. It is important to cultivate self awareness so we can listen to the different voices with dispassion and then arrive at decisions more mindfully. The self observing other selves with dispassion can be thought of as a Meta-self position. The Meta-self is a special self position that can distant itself from other self positions and view them objectively. More research is needed on the nature of the Meta-Self and how it can be cultivated. We feel that it closely resembles the notion of being the observer of your thoughts in meditation. We recommend any kind of meditation practice to increase self awareness so people can make more mindful decisions that bring ease and harmony among all selves.