Mental Budgets as Instruments of Self-Control

Mental Budgets as Instruments of Self-Control

There are some behaviors that consumers try to limit, but have trouble doing so. For instance, even as one aims to curtail consumption of sugars and fat, one ends up consuming the tiramisu or the triple chocolate cake. Such discrepancies between one’s goals and actual behaviors represent instances of self-control failure.  In the context of food consumption, the potential social and commercial implications of helping people to prevent such failures of self-control are substantial; for example, according to the National Institutes of Health, two-thirds of American adults are overweight, with associated direct economic medical costs of $78.5 billion per annum. This has created a market of about 70 million Americans attempting to control their food intake, and a diet industry worth approximately $60 billion.

This research examines whether mental budgets, defined as self-specified allowances for behaviors, can help with self-control. We theorize that mental budgets will lead to greater self-control when the avoidance aspects of the behavior are made salient and when the decision context allows easy monitoring of one's own behavior. Study 1 finds that mental budgets help reduce consumption of indulgent products when avoidance aspects of the behavior are made salient. Study 2 finds that even when avoidant aspects are made salient, mental budgets are effective only when option-information enables monitoring of one's choices relative to the budget. Study 3 finds that external reference points (a feature of both studies 1 and 2) play a critical role in reducing consumption. Study 4 extends the findings from studies 1 and 3, and finds that mental budgets are effective in enhancing self-control if the person also has high chronic prevention focus.

Mental Budgets

People try several techniques to rein-in behavior. One widely prevalent approach is to give oneself specific allowances for the behavior. Such allowances are mental budgets. It is easy to find practical examples in which people use mental budgets in hopes of controlling their behavior; for instance, in the Weight Watchers® program, each food is assigned a point value, and members are encouraged to limit their total daily consumption to a pre-specified number of points. A friend of ours, for example, gives herself an allowance of two desserts a week. In this research, our broad goal was to examine whether mental budgets can aid self-control.

Improving Will-Power?

There is reason to believe that mental budgets may influence consumption in general and self-control in particular. In this regard, prior research suggests that successful self-control strategies often provide clear goals and easy monitoring of one’s behavior with respect to these goals. A mental budget is like a reference point, a goal which provides expectations and serves as a guide in evaluation. Furthermore, this numerical reference point makes it easier to track one’s decisions and monitor how one is doing in relation to one’s goal. This provided us the basis for expecting that mental budgets may indeed aid self-control.

 “Sweet Treats”

To study the effects of mental budgets on self-control, we encouraged some participants to set mental budgets and examined whether their consumption pattern was different from those who did not set such budgets. The target behavior in question was consumption of sweet treats. With these two groups in place (budget versus no budget) we explored the conditions under which budget group does better in terms of lowering consumption of sweet treats.

We found several patterns in our data:

  • Having a mental budget alone is not sufficient. One should also simultaneously have an active goal of not wanting to consume sweets. In other words, absent a goal of controlling consumption, budgets don't really help.
  • The information about the products should match the units of your mental budgets. In other words, if your budget is in calories, but the product information does not contain calorie information, the budget does not help lower consumption.
  • Third, even when the above two conditions are met, budgets lower consumption when there is an explicit numerical recommendation regarding the normal consumption limit, much like what Weight Watchers® does. However, if the person has a chronic prevention focus, i.e., inherently capable of focusing on avoiding bad outcomes, the numerical recommendation is not necessary, merely having a mental budget is sufficient.    

Mind Control

For those who wish to cut out those desserts, our research suggests some simple tips. First, it is important to have a mental budget. At the very least, it allows you to keep track of how you are doing with respect to your goal. Second, make sure that the budget works as a limit rather than a license for the consumption behavior. To do this, it is important to have an active goal of controlling the consumption. Specifically, when confronted with that tray full of desserts after that large meal, actively try to ask yourself why you should stay away from the dessert (think calories, fat) instead of focusing on pleasure that you might get. If the avoidant aspects of the desserts are brought to mind, then, the mental budget will kick in and help control.   

Furher Reading:

"Resisting That Triple-Chocolate Cake: Mental Budgets and Self-Control", published in Journal of Consumer Research.

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