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Imagine yourself at a restaurant, trying to decide between two desserts: a chocolate cake and a fruit bowl. You’ve been trying to eat healthier, but the cake just sounds so tasty… What do you do?
As it turns out, your decision is likely to be influenced by how busy you perceive yourself to be.
Busyness has previously been studied through the lens of time pressure. Researchers found that when people feel that they’re under significant time pressure, they tend to make decisions based on emotions. For instance, when consumers are placed in situations where they lack time to complete a task, they grow anxious and become more likely to give in to their impulses. They are more likely to choose the cake, so to speak.
However, that’s not the end of the story, as there’s a flip side to busyness. In recent years, being busy has become an unmistakable badge of honor in many Western societies. It’s quite common for people to humblebrag that they don’t have a minute to themselves. Feeling busy — that is, perceiving oneself to be a busy person — thus makes individuals feel that they’re prized, important members of society.
In research forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, we looked at busyness through this modern self-concept lens. We found that the perception of oneself as a busy person — having what we call a busy mindset — can actually increase people’s self-control via a boost in self-importance. In other words, a busy mindset may make you more likely to choose the fruit bowl.
Across eight studies, we activated a busy mindset through various means. In some studies, we exposed participants to messaging that subtly suggested that they were busy individuals. In other experiments, we simply asked them to write down the reasons why they had been busy recently. Both methods successfully induced a busy mindset.
While half of our studies focused on food consumption, we also examined the effect of a busy mindset on other types of everyday decisions, such as exercising versus relaxing, or spending money versus saving it for retirement. Influencing people so that they perceived themselves to be busy consistently increased their ability to exercise self-control, thus reducing indulgent choices.
For example, in one study we told a group of university students that, according to recent data, they were busier than students at nearby schools. We also asked them to list the activities that kept them busy. Finally, we informed them that their instructor was considering letting them choose between taking a day off and completing more surveys (to earn extra academic credit). Compared with the control group, participants who had been primed to feel busy were more interested in completing additional surveys.
To test whether self-importance was the key reason behind these choices, we conducted additional tests. In one study, after ensuring participants perceived themselves as busy, we asked them to indicate how many people in their lives considered them an important person. To dampen the self-importance of a subset of participants, we asked them to indicate a number between 10 and 50 — a scale bound to result in a number falling below the midrange. Other participants were asked to state a number on a normal scale from 1 to 5. As predicted, a dampened sense of self-importance eliminated the self-control effect: Just like the control group, participants who felt busy but decidedly not important preferred to receive a brownie (58%) rather than an apple as a reward for participating in the study. By contrast, only 35% of participants in the busy group chose the brownie when their self-importance wasn’t dampened.
To examine the busy mindset effect in a natural setting, we conducted a field experiment in the cafeteria of a large U.S. West Coast university. On random days over three weeks of the summer term, near the food stations we posted signs that said: “Good to go, for busy [name of the school] students!” On other days, the posters said: “Good to go, for summer [name of the school] students!” On other days we used no sign at all.
On days when the “busy” signs were up, the number of unhealthy items sold was significantly lower than on days when the “summer” signs were up or no sign was used. Specifically, 107 unhealthy items were sold on average, versus 149 and 154 for the summer and no-sign conditions, respectively. We also counted the calories from fat in the foods the cafeteria offered and found that activating a busy mindset with these signs reduced overall consumption of calories from fat.
Our research has useful implications for marketers and advertisers. In recent years a number of brands have used busyness as their ad campaigns. For instance, Anytime Fitness, an international chain of health and fitness clubs, has run campaigns with the tagline “The club for busy people.” This makes sense, as this kind of business is one that requires people to assert self-control. On the other hand, according to our study, the same concept could backfire in the case of businesses selling products commonly perceived as indulgent or unhealthy. Take the example of Dunkin Donuts, which advertises its products as “real food for busy lifestyles.” Given that Dunkin Donuts is perceived as indulgent, such busyness appeals may backfire. Our findings further suggest that if some ambiguity exists about the product — for instance, oatmeal cookies could be framed as either healthy or indulgent — then it would be safer to use the healthy framing when using a busyness appeal.
Our findings also have important implications for consumers and policy makers who are concerned with self-control behaviors. Much research has focused on what causes consumers to choose immediate gratification over long-term benefits, be it in the spheres of overeating or food waste. Lately, mindful eating as an intervention to enhance self-control has received a lot of attention; however, it requires training and continual practice. Our research suggests that activating a busy mindset may be an easier and more effective nudge to facilitate self-control.
Reference: Harvard Business Review