Repeating Regret

By Phil Rockrohr
Published: February 29, 2008

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Indulging Without Guilt

A recent study tracks how impulsive and prudent people feel after indulging and suggests why impulsive people are more likely to do it again. Meanwhile, prudent people try to relieve their guilt by doing something better the second time around, according to research by Suresh Ramanathan.

Why, after feeling guilty about impulsive shopping, binge drinking, or eating, do so many people do it again? Associate professor of marketing Suresh Ramanathan has found evidence that people who call themselves impulsive do not feel as much guilt the second time around, while those who consider themselves more prudent not only retain the guilt, they also assuage it by performing a more utilitarian act.

In a recent study Ramanathan coauthored, researchers left people alone in a room with a one-way mirror and a tray of cookies. Researchers asked those who picked up a cookie to describe their emotions. “Immediately after picking up the cookies, both self-described impulsives and self-described prudent people experienced a mix of positive and negative emotions,” Ramanathan said.

However, 24 hours later, researchers asked the same people the same question and found a complete divergence in the emotional patterns. “Impulsive people continued to have fairly high levels of positive emotions, but their guilt or regret was almost half of what it was the previous day. With those who were prudent, it was exactly the opposite. The positive emotions had decayed, whereas the guilt and regret continued to persist over time.”

The results suggest that time affects the way people experience different emotions, he said. “One possible explanation for why people act impulsively is that they do not remember those emotions the next time they have the opportunity to engage in an impulsive behavior,” Ramanathan said.

In a second experiment, researchers gave both types of people the choice between doing something indulgent or something more utilitarian. Because they are more comfortable dealing with ambivalence around guilt, so-called impulsives chose to indulge the second time. But those who were prudent saw the utilitarian choice as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and get rid of their guilt, he said.

The study raises public policy questions about how to address advertising that targets people—especially teenagers—who are vulnerable to such messages, Ramanathan said. “For example, Subway and Weight Watchers give you opportunities to get rid of the guilt,” he said. “They say, ‘If you eat all this good stuff, you can indulge with this.’ It’s almost a way of justifying how you cope with negative emotions.” One way to help impulsive spenders, drinkers, or eaters avoid overindulging is to continue to highlight their guilt and regret, Ramanathan said.

But Ramanathan would like to examine whether prudent people are even more vulnerable because of their “rollercoaster of emotions,” he said. “Is the fact that they got rid of the guilt likely to reset their overall behavior to the beginning?” he asked. “Or do people learn from the last time and change?”—P.R.


Last Updated 5/14/09