Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 310
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.


New research explores the role of anticipation in impulse control.

Thieves come in two varieties: deliberate and impulsive.

Deliberate thieves intend to do wrong. They walk into a business with thieving in mind. They eat breakfast that morning with their plans taking shape. They analyze a business�s security to spot weaknesses, and then they plot the best strategies to exploit them. They are crooks.

Impulsive thieves are foolish to the extreme. They live in the here-and-now, and they don�t consider future consequences of their actions. If they walk by a pastry shop with empty stomachs, they�re sure to stop in, and if they don�t have money, there�s always a quick doughnut in the pocket. �I didn�t think of that,� is an often-heard reply that arresting officers hear when they ask shoplifters if they expected to be arrested.

The problem with deliberate thieves is insufficient law enforcement and not enough jail cells, but the problem with impulsive thieves is different. For them, it�s a problem of self control. They don�t have enough of it, and so they have something in common with anyone who can�t follow a diet or an exercise program or can�t bring themselves to contribute to an employer-matching 401K.

Gregana Nenkov, from Boston College, is an expert in self control, and she recently published a series of experiments that provide both new insights into the problem and a way business owners can help.

A key to self control, says Ms. Nenkov, is the sense of urgency and importance that comes with anticipation. If, for example, one expects to get rich quickly by investing in a particular stock, then the pleasure of that anticipation produces a drive to purchase the shares. Such purchases become urgent and important. Conversely, if a person expects to go to jail if a particular crime is committed, then the dread of that anticipation drives a revulsion toward that or any other behavior that could bring about the loss of freedom. The generation of potential outcomes seems to play an important role in creating anticipation, and Nenkov sought to find out what it was.

Professor Nenkov suspected that the ability to generate potential outcomes of actions before they are taken might be a personal trait that could be measured and manipulated. By doing so, she hoped she could find a way to influence the experience of anticipation.

Nenkov began by creating a short questionnaire that asked people to report their experience of generating anticipated outcomes, and then she asked them to respond to problems that actually forced them to do so. She asked them to list the expected outcomes for LASIK eye surgery and then to evaluate the likelihood and desirability of each of their answers. She found that people varied widely in their ability to list potential outcomes. Her questionnaire accurately identified those with and those without this ability.

Next, she compared those who scored high and those who scored low on her questionnaire with personal factors that would reflect self control, and she found validation for her measure. Low scoring people reported difficulty with procrastination and impulse control. They ate too much, saved too little, took exams without adequate preparation, exercised too little, and drank too much. High scoring people had few of these problems. High scorers thought through their actions before they took them.

Finally, Professor Nenkov devised a way to stimulate people to generate potential outcomes, and she tried it out on low-scoring subjects. She directed them to imagine making a specific decision and then to list and evaluate as many potential outcomes as they could. She specifically asked them to list both positive and negative outcomes, and she asked them to guess the probability of each one. When she followed up this exercise with a specific choice task, she found that low-scorers had exhibited marked improvement in their self control. Their self-control had temporarily doubled.

Nenkov�s work has demonstrated that self-control can be temporarily and substantially improved, and this is an important finding for business owners. It gives them something new to do about theft. Imagine, for example, a clothing retailer who replaces his dressing room sign warning people about shoplifting with one that genuinely elaborates on the potential outcomes of shoplifting. Instead of �Shoplifters will be prosecuted,� the new sign would read �Shoplifting . . .� with these entries listed one-at-a-time below: �handcuffs,� �being led through the store by a police officer,� �a trip in the back seat of a cruiser,� �the inside of a jail cell,� � mug shots,� �fingerprinting,� �arrest record,� �court room,� �disappointed grandparents,� �friends you won�t be allowed to see anymore,� �losing your job,� �future jobs you won�t be able to get,� �colleges that won�t accept you,� and so on. An enterprising business owner may even provide illustrations for each entry to make the message even more vivid.

The target for such signage is the impulsive thief, and the hoped-for outcome would be greater elaboration on the outcomes of shoplifting at that moment when stuffing merchandise down one�s pants seems like a good idea. Professor Nenkov�s research suggests that such improved elaboration of outcomes will produce anticipation and dread of negative outcomes, and this heightened anticipation will trigger temporary, improved self control. Improved self control at such moments will reduce theft, and that�s just what we need. It�s worth a try.

Reference: Nenkov, Gergana, J. Inman, and John Hulland (2008) Considering the Future: The Conceptualization and Measurement of Elaboration on Potential Outcomes. Journal of Consumer Research, 35 (June), 126-142.

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