New Research Suggests Desire Can Be Tempered by Postponing It

Published on January 13, 2016

Bauer Professor Vanessa Patrick Is Co-Author of Paper Published in January’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


C. T. Bauer College of Business Professor of Marketing and Director of Doctoral Programs Vanessa M. Patrick co-authored a new research article about managing impulses with Erasmus University’s Nicole L. Mead.

It is the time of the year when people resolve to improve their lives — eat better, exercise more, spend smart, sleep well. Yet despite such good intentions, it can be hard to stick to resolutions. Temptation is everywhere. Desires often sidetrack people from their goals. No wonder Jan. 17 is known as Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day. Now, a new study suggests consumers may be able to curb desires by simply postponing them indefinitely.

While conventional methods of resisting temptation have focused on harnessing will power, abstinence and denial, C. T. Bauer College of Business Professor Vanessa M. Patrick and co-author Nicole L. Mead of Erasmus University suggest there may be a better way to manage the pangs of desire.

Writing in the January issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Mead and Patrick argue that by postponing temptations to an unspecific time in the future, consumers can make longer lasting behavioral changes.

An example: Imagine yourself walking by an ice-cream store and feeling the urge to indulge. A common response would be to deprive yourself. Alternatively, you could postpone by saying: “Sure, I can have ice-cream, but maybe later.”

“If we postpone consumption at peak desire, in the heat of the moment, we are less likely to want to consume later,’’ Patrick, a consumer psychologist and Bauer College professor of marketing, says of the research.

“What we theorized,” Patrick said, “is that saying we can have it later not only helps self-regulate in the present, but also serves as a signal to our future selves that says: ‘I didn’t really want ice-cream that much.’ This helps us manage desires over the longer term.”

“What’s nice about this particular method of self-regulation is that we make inferences about our desire and learn from our own behavioral response to temptation.”

It is important that the decision to postpone be unspecific. This research shows that if a person postpones the temptation to a specific time, then they are likely to follow through with that decision. “If you say, ‘I will eat chocolate at dinner,’ you will eat chocolate at dinner,” Patrick says.

The professors believe the research, based on four experiments conducted at Erasmus University, can be a powerful tool for people who want to change their habits for the longer term.

“It is a behavioral insight that helps you achieve your goals and self-regulate, but it’s also a form of compassionate self-control. It’s not self-deprivation. It’s not this terrible feeling of ‘I can’t have this. I really wish I could, but I can’t.’ At some point, that breaks down because we can’t keep on constraining ourselves,” Patrick added.

Patrick believes the paper — “The Taming of Desire: Unspecific Postponement Reduces Desire for and Consumption of Postponed Temptations” — moves the needle in a positive, more self-compassionate direction.

A Professor of Marketing and the Director of Bauer’s Doctoral Programs, she is a leading expert in consumer psychology and studies “the two sides of the pleasure coin.” Her research investigates both the pull of pleasure (in terms of art, aesthetics and luxury) and the strategies and interventions by which consumers can manage their appetites for pleasure. Her work has appeared in leading consumer research and psychology journals and has been covered by ABC News, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and NPR.

Mead is an Associate Professor in the Department of Marketing Management at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — a highly regarded, peer-reviewed scientific publication — is published monthly by the American Psychological Association.

By Wendell Brock