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Consumers often need ‘partners in crime’ before yielding to temptations

several bits of candy in yellow, red, green, orange and purple

Consumer decision-making is affected by a wide variety of factors, but one identified by researchers emphasizes a person’s need for a “partner in crime.”

Michael Lowe, a graduate student in marketing at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, and Kelly Haws, professor of management at Vanderbilt University, study consumer behavior and find that whether abstaining from or indulging in temptation, a person’s behavior is strongly influenced by others.

In their study, “(Im)moral Support: The Social Outcomes of Parallel Self-Control Decisions,” to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Lowe and Haws randomly paired individuals to watch a short video together and later answer questions about the film. On the table between the participants was a bowl of candy, which they could eat if they so desired. The subjects were left alone in the room and observed by hidden camera.

“In reality, we didn’t care what they thought of the film, but we did care what happened with that bowl of candy,” Lowe explains, saying the results were quite interesting. “First, even though participants were instructed not to speak to each other during this segment, almost all the pairs of participants matched one another’s behavior. When one of the participants sort of ‘broke the ice’ and reached for a piece of candy, the other participant almost always followed suit.”

After the film, participants were asked a few questions privately, including how they felt about their study partner. “People who matched one another’s behavior reported liking each other more after the study,” notes Lowe. “However, as people ate more and more candy together, they reported liking each other less and less until there was actually a negative effect of sharing an indulgence.”

Overall, says Lowe, abstaining together was good, indulging a little together was better, but indulging too much together hurt the relationship.

The researchers say instances of this type of “parallel self-control” occur all the time in real life and marketers can use its psychology to connect to consumers.

“A parallel self-control decision occurs any time two or more people face the same self-control decision simultaneously and both are free to choose for themselves,” explains Lowe. “These happen all the time, for example, roommates at Texas A&M deciding whether or not to get up and go to their classes, co-workers ordering food while out to lunch together, even total strangers walking by a sale rack and each deciding whether or not to splurge. We’re all human and we all have many of the same goals (be healthy, save money, get good grades, etc.), but we are all tempted by many of the same things.”

In another experiment, the subjects were asked to simply imagine scenarios requiring parallel self-control and express how they would feel about another person.

“We found that people anticipated liking someone much more if their decisions matched,” Lowe explains. “However, more importantly, we found that people anticipated bonding much more through matched indulgence when it was something just a little devious — like eating a caloric dessert when your doctor has said you’re in great health — and matched abstention when ceding to the temptation was viewed as more severe — like eating the same dessert when your doctor has just told you that your health is at risk.”

Understanding the psychology of “parallel self-control” can help marketers better understand and connect to consumers, Lowe says.

In other words, when the consequences were less severe, people bonded more through indulgence. But when the consequences were more severe, they bonded more through shared abstinence.

Lowe says the results of both experiments show that people want to be around others who help bring out the best in them, but who also let them have a little fun. “No one wants to feel condemned for their moments of weakness, and what better way than to have someone share those moments with you,” says Lowe. “However, no one wants to be around someone who really brings them down either. So when the stakes are high, you’ll find friendship in moral support. When the stakes are just a tiny bit devious, you’ll find friendship as partners in crime.”

In practice, marketers can use this information, Lowe asserts, to better understand and connect to consumers. “Marketers can find ways to ‘socialize’ small indulgences in a number of ways. One easy way is simply to depict indulgent experiences as shared or social in advertising. On the other side, fighting to overcome a harmful addiction is something that might be more successful when made more social, as it produces camaraderie between those choosing to abstain.”