Choosing cake instead of carrots does not indicate a lack of self-control.
Choosing to eat chocolate cake instead of carrot sticks doesn’t amount to a lack of self-control, according to new research co-authored by a Cass Business School scholar.
In the field of consumer research, self-control is often conceptualized as, and tested through, the ability or inability to abstain from “hedonic consumption” (at its lowest level, eating sugary and fatty foods).
According to this common conceptualization, food decisions imply a balance between health and pleasure, in which deciding on pleasure is associated with a failure of self-control.
But, as the authors of Exerting Self-Control and Sacrificing Pleasure argue, for a choice to constitute a failure of self-control, it must be accompanied by an anticipated regret and violate a long-term goal sustained by the consumer.
“Presented with the opportunity to eat cake or carrot sticks, a person determined to lose weight would experience a failure of self-control when he chooses to eat the cake and hopes to regret having done so. Early regret would indicate that eating the cake violates a long-term goal of losing weight,” said Dr. Irene Scopelliti, associate professor of marketing at the Cass School of Business.
“However, if the same person ate just a piece of cake, he or she may not experience a failure of self-control because he or she hasn’t eaten enough to violate his or her goal of losing weight and triggering regret”.
“It’s not cake consumption that automatically indicates failure in self-control, it’s whether consumers believe they can regret their food choices in the future; our research shows that health and pleasure are not necessarily in conflict”.
“That thought plays on the dichotomous perception that food is good or bad, which is an incorrect simplification of food practices”.
Consequently, Dr. Scopelliti and her co-authors, Professor Joachim Vosgerau of Bocconi University and Dr. Young Eun Huh of the School of Business Administration and Technology at Korea’s Higher Institute of Science and Technology, argue that obesity should not, as it often does, be associated with a lack of self-control, since the two cannot be empirically linked.
“Because individuals’ long-term goals often differ, so do the prerequisites for self-control failures,” said Professor Vosgerau.
“If a person feels comfortable with their weight and doesn’t anticipate regretting their food choices beforehand, then we can’t say they lack self-control”.
To conclude, the authors ask whether researchers and consumer behavior psychologists have the necessary experience to advise consumers about their eating practices or what constitutes a healthy lifestyle.
“We argue that this task is the competence of nutritionists, biologists and medical professionals, who can objectively determine which foods and in what amounts are good or bad,” Dr. Huh said.
Researchers and psychologists of consumer behavior are better placed to help consumers realize that they have a self-control problem and to help them alter their perception of food so that taste and wholesomeness are more positively associated.
“By abandoning the idea that eating “bad foods” amounts to a failure of self-control, consumers should find it easier to exercise self-control, especially if they are armed with the combined dietary knowledge of medically trained professionals and the knowledge of the behavior of consumer psychologists and researchers.