Pump Up Your Willpower: Why You Should Flex Your Muscles When You’re Too Weak to Fight Off the Urge to Buy

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Here’s one of those weird-yet-fascinating, quirky-yet-perhaps-helpful research findings: People who clench their muscles—by, say, making a fist or tensing their biceps—show a brief spurt of improved willpower. So, if one of your long-term goals is to save money, you might be able to fight off the impulse buy urge when shopping by giving a store clerk a sneak peak of the Gun Show, or by pointing out the way to Muscle Beach to fellow customers.

Greg Karp, writing for the Chicago Tribune, sums up the flex-willpower theory and other fun research findings from the Journal of Consumer Research. A summary of the clenched-muscle study explains that flexing only boosts willpower in certain circumstances:

The authors found that the muscle tightening only helped when the choice aligned with the participants’ goals (for example, to have a healthier lifestyle). They also found that the tightening of muscles only helped at the moment people faced the self-control dilemma. (If they did it beforehand, they felt depleted by the time it was time to make a choice.)

Does this really work when someone is tempted to buy something? Who knows. It seems oversimplified, but it can’t hurt. Part of me thinks that if you’re simply pausing in any which way before rushing into a purchase, you’re less likely to buy something you regret. During that pause, it probably doesn’t matter if you firm up your calves, show off your lats, tense up your stomach a la MTV’s The Situation, or just take a moment to breathe and think it over. Another study showed that pausing and doing a little self-affirmation exercise helps shore up willpower so that you can fight off the urge to buy something you’ll later regret.

Then again, the flexing exercise has its benefits: If your long-term goals include both firming up your body along with your personal finances, clenching your muscles before heading to the cash register is a win-win.

Another neat finding described in Karp’s story reveals how consumers are willing to pay more for certain cell phones not because of their utility, but because of how—and how much—they envy other people who own the same phone:

Researchers Niels van de Ven, Marcel Zeelenberg and Rik Pieters of Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, found that consumers are willing to pay more for the same product when they envy the buyer, but only if it’s a positive “benign” envy, in which they view the target of their envy as deserving of the product. If it’s a “malicious” envy, the consumer is willing to pay more for a competing product.

Researchers used the iPhone and competing BlackBerry smart phones in their tests. People who were benignly envious of an iPhone owner were willing to pay, on average, about $111 more for one. But those who thought the iPhone owner of whom they were envious was undeserving were willing to pay more for a BlackBerry.

If jealousy is skewing your buying decisions, then there really is no such thing as “benign” envy. It’s all bad. Come to think of it, envy, greed, pride, sloth — they all factor into impulse buys, and they all might be considered deadly sins to be avoided by good consumers seeking lofty rewards in the long run.

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