Let Them Eat Cake

Kivetz and doctoral candidate Anat Kienan reveals that indulging now and then minimizes long-term regret -- welcome advice to both consumers and marketers of luxury goods
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Imagine you’re having dinner at a restaurant. As you eye the dessert cart, you are tempted by the double chocolate layer cake. “You’re going to waste 500 calories on that?” a disapproving voice in your head asks. Directly behind the cake is a delicate bowl of fresh fruit. “Choose the fruit,” counsels the voice. “You won’t regret making the healthy choice.”

Or will you?

Research by Ran Kivetz, professor of marketing, and Anat Keinan, a doctoral candidate in marketing, shows that — in the long run — you’ll regret it more if you choose the healthy fruit salad over the rich chocolate cake. As the Chicago Tribune urged readers soon after the authors’ findings appeared in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, “Give yourself a break.” (A front-page headline in a Canadian newspaper was even more to the point: “Dump the guilt and go for it!”)

“We found that in day-to-day self-control dilemmas in which the ‘right answer’ isn’t always clear — such as chocolate cake versus fruit salad or working versus going to the movies — people felt better in the long run about choosing to indulge,” says Kivetz.

The research — highlighted by the New York Times Magazine in its 6th annual “Year in Ideas” issue — offers particularly welcome advice to consumers who tend to exercise what the authors call hyperopia, or excessive farsightedness, depriving themselves of pleasurable experiences in an attempt to act responsibly.

In one study, Kivetz and Keinan asked participants to choose between two desserts: a “delicious, three-layer chocolate cake” (the universal symbol of indulgence among researchers of self-control) and a “low-calorie, healthy fruit salad.” Subjects were asked to imagine that they had chosen the cake and to describe what they thought they would feel about their choice one day or 10 years into the future. Participants were more likely to mention guilt when the evaluation was to take place the next day rather than 10 years later.

“Indulgence regret tends to be immediate and intense but short-lived,” says Kivetz. But as time passes, people begin to feel lasting regret about making virtuous choices. The authors call this “self-control regret” — the wistful sense of missing out. Kivetz and Keinan describe guilt, or indulgence regret, as an acute, “hot” emotion that quickly subsides, but they see self-control regret as a contemplative feeling that increases over time.

In another study, the authors quizzed university students about regret experienced during recent and past winter breaks. They also quizzed alumni from the same school reflecting on a winter break 40 years ago. A clear pattern emerged: the more removed students were from the winter break, the more likely they were to regret not enjoying themselves—not shopping, traveling or doing less work. Similar results were found for businesspeople choosing between work and pleasure.

The findings are also useful to marketers of luxury goods: if consumers are prompted to consider their long-term regret, they’re more likely to purchase pleasurable products and experiences. Indeed, in a yet-to-be-published follow-up study, Kivetz and Keinan found that Thanksgiving-holiday mall shoppers who were instructed to anticipate long-term regret bought more pleasurable items and spent more money than those who didn’t pause to consider long-term regret.

“When we make day-to-day choices, we are so focused on local goals like saving money, working hard or doing well in school that we forget about the broader goals of being happy and enjoying life,” says Keinan. “The key is to think about what you’ll regret in the long term.”

About the researcher

Ran Kivetz

Professor Ran Kivetz is a tenured professor at Columbia University Business School, where he holds the Philip H. Geier endowed chair.  Professor Kivetz...

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