Control yourself 

By Barbara Black

You don’t expect a marketing professor to study self-control with the aim of helping us curb it. After all, the whole idea of marketing is to persuade us to buy against our better judgment.

Darlene Walsh, who recently joined the John Molson School of Business, says that in fact, she is trying to help marketers provide consumers with the products and information they need to save more and eat better.

Darlene Walsh poses in front of some seasonal temptations. Magnifying glass

Darlene Walsh poses in front of some seasonal temptations.

“My research examines the conditions in which consumers are able to resist temptation. I do acknowledge, however, that to understand what makes people successful, I must also examine why people are not successful. You cannot study successful self-control without studying self-control failure.”

In her research on eating behaviour, she has found that the successful dieters are those who are able to re-evaluate temptation.

“When successful individuals are tempted, they bring to mind negative information about the temptation, causing the overall evaluation of the temptation to become neutral. We often don't bother approaching something if it’s neutral.” Unsuccessful dieters continue to evaluate the temptation — the big piece of chocolate cake, for example — as positive, with the result that they eat it.

“Marketers who are interested in encouraging better self-control among consumers can design broadcast media or print media based on these findings by associating temptations with negative consequences. This might enhance self-control among those who would normally not show self-control.”

Walsh hasn’t directly examined overspending, but she has some studies lined up that tackle a broad issue that might include it.

“Are all self-control problems created equal? It is important to know whether the successful self-control process that underlies the ability to resist a temptation in one domain, such as the ability to resist fattening foods, is the same or different from the successful self-control process that underlies a different domain, such as the ability to resist overspending.”

It’s important to recognize that self-control is complex, she said. “Sometimes we need to avoid things we want, the guilty pleasures. Studying is important for academic success, but we need to avoid social activities. Saving is important for financial security, but we need to avoid buying that sweater.

“There are other times that we need to pursue things we do not want to do; call them the grim necessities. For example, to ensure a healthy life, we must take unwanted steps such as exercise or uncomfortable medical tests.”

If we assume that guilty pleasures have similarities, her findings suggest that people overspend because the temptations are evaluated positively, and they are unable to override that behaviour.


Concordia University