A new study published in PLOS ONE looked at how state-trait interactions in regulatory focus determines impulse buying behavior.
“Our study looks at how a basic motivational theory (regulatory focus theory) can be applied to the phenomenon of impulse buying,” study author Anand Krishna told us. “Regulatory focus differentiates between a promotion focus, in which people are motivated by achieving potential gains or growth goals, and a prevention focus, in which people are motivated by avoiding losses or achieving security goals.”
Both of these motivational states can be induced temporarily by a situation (for example, a promotion focus might be induced if a person thinks about achieving their ideals; a prevention focus might be induced by considering possible failures to adhere to one's personal standards). However, individuals also vary in the degree to which they chronically tend towards a promotion or prevention focus (e.g. construing ambiguous situations as opportunities for gain or as risks for loss).
“We also probe the limits of what a situationally induced motivational state can accomplish by varying how much cognitive capacity or opportunity participants have to make their buying decision,” Krishna told us. “In this way, we can see whether these proposed motivational effects occur early in the decision-making process without much cognitive effort (e.g. by strengthening spontaneous impulses directly) or whether they require some degree of cognitive elaboration to occur (e.g. if they bias how people deal with an impulse).”
Researchers were expecting the simple situational induction of regulatory focus to affect impulse buying on its own, regardless of people's trait regulatory focus (as occurred in the first experiment, but not the second or the aggregate analysis).
“The interesting part for us was whether this effect would remain intact if we took away people's opportunity for cognitive elaboration,” Krishna told us. “We weren't expecting people's traits as chronic promotion or prevention-focused individuals to be a necessary precondition for any effect of situational regulatory focus, but this is what the data ended up showing.”
Quite a lot of Krishna’s research has gone into looking more closely at regulatory focus theory, including on a more technical and basic level.
“For me, it was an extension of the theory to a more applied context - not hugely theoretically innovative, but still providing some solid evidence of real-world effects, especially as we focused on actual spending behavior (albeit in an artificial situation),” Krishna told us. “This was also attractive for students, many of whom tend to prefer more applied research work, which may be why my co-authors (both students whose BSc thesis work contributed to the paper) got on board.”
Researchers induced a regulatory focus in our participants by having them play a game in which they had to help a mouse achieve a goal. For the promotion focus group, the goal was to get cheese as fast as possible - which is conceptually linked to achieving positive outcomes (i.e. gains) - and participants were also told they could earn themselves extra cash if they did well (thus activating an actual promotion goal).
For the prevention focus group, the goal was to get safely away from an owl - conceptually linked to security goals - and participants were told they might lose some of their reward money if they did badly (activating an actual prevention goal). After this, participants got a chance to spend some of their hard-earned payment on a selection of discounted food and drink products (such as chocolate or smoothies).
“For half of the participants, this decision was relatively free and unencumbered, but for the other half, they had to make a fast decision (<5s) or had to do it while remembering a set of gibberish letters and numbers, distracting them. We measured how much money the participants spent,” Krishna told us. “We measured their trait promotion and prevention focus as well as some other relevant traits with questionnaires.”
The results were more complicated than expected, explained Krishna.
“First off, although a situational promotion focus does indeed increase impulse buying, this only works for individuals who have either a strong trait promotion or a strong trait prevention focus,” Krishna told us. “While we don't yet know the precise cognitive processes that cause this, one relatively simple way to understand this is that only people who have a general tendency to be motivated by losses and gains in general actually experience enough of an impact from situational promotion/prevention cues for it to affect their spending. Put simply, you need to be the type to care about gains or potential risks, or having gains/potential risks on the mind isn't going to affect your buying.”
Second, specifically for prevention-focused individuals, this effect disappeared when they didn't have the opportunity to focus on the buying decision for long. This is easy to misinterpret, though.
“What this means is that prevention-focused individuals under time pressure bought the same amount, regardless of whether they were in a situational promotion or prevention focus,” Krishna told us. “So prevention-focused individuals apparently need an opportunity to elaborate on the reasons against spending money impulsively if the situation has reminded them of the need for security, but they will ALSO end up spending MORE money if the situation puts them in mind of potential gains given that same opportunity. Without the opportunity to elaborate, it's anyone's guess.”
Researchers were somewhat surprised with the results. They were expecting a fairly simple pattern. They thought any trait effect would be secondary to their situational manipulation of regulatory focus, because they thought that trait regulatory focus simply reflects people being more likely to slip into a specific situational regulatory focus.
“So if they we were controlling the situational regulatory focus, the trait shouldn't matter that much, right?” Krishna told us. “Turns out we were wrong about that.”
While there are some possible recommendations for consumers to be had from this, they are admittedly not particularly pithy, explained Krishna. So for consumers, if you want to curb your impulse buying, keep a reminder of your personal standards, responsibilities and the risks you want to avoid on you when you're shopping. If you're a particularly security-focused individual, maybe try to minimize distractions and avoid making purchase decisions under time pressure.
“This is of course only one possible recommendation - there's a lot of other research out there that provides further tips,” Krishna told us. “From a theoretical perspective, it's more interesting to look more closely at what the precise cognitive boundary conditions are for these motivational states to operate. Why do prevention-focused individuals need time to elaborate, but not promotion-focused individuals? Is there something fundamentally different about the cognitive processes that these two states elicit? These are important questions going forward, especially as regulatory focus theory is being applied in all sorts of fields as we speak.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com