University of Southern California

Help Me Stop Myself
June 11, 2010

"Whether it's finding ways to cut back on calories, exercise more, or spend less, we Americans are searching for methods to help us exert control over everyday temptations," writes USC Professor Deborah McInnis at the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

So how can we better resist that unnecessarily expensive purchase, or choose an hour on the elliptical trainer over an hour on the sofa? MacInnis believes the use of "anticipated emotions" might provide a key to greater self-control.

"Anticipated emotions reflect how we think we will feel as a result of a given action or outcome," she explains, "For example, when it comes to consuming tempting products, we might anticipate feeling pride (if we resist temptation) or shame (if we succumb)."

To test her theory, MacInnis worked with former PhD students Hae Eun Chun and Vanessa Patrick on a study that placed participants in a room with nothing more than a scrumptious slice of chocolate cake, a fork, a napkin and a bottle of water.

MacInnis and her team divided participants into three groups. "Everyone was told that they could eat as much or as little as they wanted over a 10 minute period," she says. But there was more:

  • The first group was asked to anticipate the shame they would feel at the thought of eating the cake.
  • The second group was told to anticipate the pride they would feel at the thought of resisting the cake.
  • The third group received no instructions on how to anticipate feelings.

The results were dramatic. Those who anticipated pride in their level of restraint consumed far less cake than those who anticipated shame in their lack of self-control. "Why is pride so beneficial?" asks MacInnis. "When consumers focus on pride they focus on themselves and the act of resistance; when they focus on shame, they focus on the cake and the act of succumbing."

The bottom line: People who feel good about being good will exert more self-control than those who feel bad about being bad.

Debbie MacInnis (USC Marshall School of Business),  Hae Eun Chun (Cornell) and Vanessa Patrick (University of Georgia), "Affective Forecasting and Self-Control: Why Anticipating Pride Wins over Anticipating Shame in a Self-Regulation Context”, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19 (3), 537-545.

Read the entire article here.