Research and impact | By Hamish Armstrong

Research: Sacrificing pleasure is not the same as self-control

New research finds that choosing to eat carrot cake instead of carrot sticks does not equal a lack of self-control. In consumer research, self-control is often conceptualised as and tested through the ability or inability to abstain from hedonic consumption. At its most basic level, this includes eating sugary, fatty foods.


According to this common conceptualisation, food decisions involve a trade-off between health and pleasure, where deciding on pleasure is associated with the failure of self-control, but authors of Exerting Self-Control ≠ Sacrificing Pleasure think otherwise. They argue that a choice must violate a long term goal and be accompanied by anticipated regret, to constitute a self-control failure.


Dr Irene Scopelliti, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Business School and co-author of the study, explained the findings. “Presented with the opportunity to eat cake or carrot sticks, a person intent on losing weight would experience a self-control failure when they choose to eat the cake and expect to regret the choice”, she says.


“Anticipated regret would signal that eating the cake violated a long term goal of losing weight. If the same person ate only a small piece of cake, however, they may not experience a self-control failure because they haven’t eaten enough to violate their goal of losing weight.


“It is not the consumption of cake that automatically signals a self-control failure, it is whether consumers believe that they may regret their food choice in the future.


“Our research demonstrates that health and pleasure are not necessarily in conflict. Such thinking plays into the dichotomous perception of foods being either good or bad, which is an incorrect over-simplification of eating practices”.


As a consequence, Dr Scopelliti and her co-authors, Professor Joachim Vosgerau of Bocconi University and Dr Young Eun Huh from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology’s School of Business and Technology Management, argue that obesity should not, as it often is, be associated with a lack of self-control as the two cannot be empirically linked.


“Because individuals’ long term goals often differ so too do the prerequisites for self-control failures”, says Professor Vosgerau.


“If a person is comfortable with their weight and does not anticipate regret in advance of their food consumption choices, then we cannot say that person lacks self-control”.


Concluding the paper, the authors question whether consumer behaviour academics and psychologists have the expertise to advise consumers on eating practices or give advice on what constitutes a healthy lifestyle.


“We argue that the task falls into the remit of nutritionists, biologists and medical professionals, who can objectively determine which foods and in what quantities are good or bad”, Dr Huh explains.


“Consumer behaviour academics and psychologists are better placed to help consumers realise that they have a self-control problem and can assist them to alter their perceptions of food, so that tastiness and healthiness become more positively associated.


“By abandoning the idea that eating bad foods equals a self-control failure, consumers should find it easier to exert self-control, particularly if they are armed with the combined dietary knowledge of medically trained professionals and the behavioural knowledge of psychologists and consumer academics”.