Q&A with Consumer Psychologist Kathleen Vohs

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Kathleen D. Vohs, associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, is an expert in self-regulation, problems with spending, and the psychology of money. Among other things, her work reveals how people feel when they’re reminded of money they’ve spent (not so good), and how you can practice better self-control (think Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character’s daily affirmations).

Cheapskate: Can you explain how technology—and the ever-expanding number of ways to buy things 24/7—increases the likelihood of impulse buying? Is it basically because people are more and more likely to have a moment of weakness?

Kathleen Vohs: Self-control is a function of urges and restraints. The stronger the urge, the harder (i.e., more strength) one needs to restrain oneself from indulging it. Having more stimuli around to tempt the person, the stronger the urges will likely become.

CS: How do people feel after they’ve spent money?

KV: My work would say that reminding people of the money that they have spent (which is different than “in the moment” spending) heightens feelings of pain.

CS: Your work talks about the need for “self-regulatory resources.” What’s that mean in everyday language? Would most people call it willpower? Or is that too simple?

KV: SRRs are a supply of energy that people use to put toward controlled responses or behaviors. It is akin to (but more sophisticated than) the notion of willpower.

CS: What are the big ways one’s self-regulatory resources are depleted?

KV: It has to do with earlier exertion of self-control. The major ways that people engage in self-control is to stifle their emotions, try to rid unwanted thoughts, overcome impulses, or persist on difficult or unenjoyable tasks.

CS: So how does one restore self-regulatory resources?

KV: We found that reminding people of the values they hold dear helps then overcome a depleted state and do well at self-control.

CS: Thanks Professor Vohs.

The last point comes from her paper, “Self-Affirmation and Self-Control: Affirming Core Values Counteracts Ego Depletion,” recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “A psychological intervention—self-affirmation—facilitates self-control,” a key point reads. “One of the most powerful forms of self-affirmation … is the small but significant act of expression one’s core values.”

In the experiments conducted by Vohs and her partner, participants were asked to do various tasks. Some of the participants were then told to rank different values and personal characteristics in order of importance to them—stuff like physical attractiveness, creativity, aesthetics, relations to friends and family. The results? Basically, the people who took a moment to reaffirm their values were better able to practice self-control in subsequent tasks than the people who did nothing but move on to the next task.

“Unlike other animals, humans are capable of reflecting upon the guiding values in their lives, and humans also far exceed other animals in the capacity for self-control,” Vohs’s paper says in summary. “Together, these two capacities have bestowed upon humans the ability to move beyond the immediate stimulus environment and orient themselves toward abstract, long-range outcomes … Calling up one’s guiding principles in life temporarily improves performance at self-control under conditions that otherwise hasten self-control failure.”

So, the next time you feel an impulse buy coming on, take a breather and put together a quick mental list of what’s really important in your life. Chances are, that new handbag or set of golf clubs isn’t on the list. You might want to summon up your inner Stuart Smalley and repeat the words, “I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”