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Ron Faber and Kathleen Vohs in front of shopping carts.

U professors Ron Faber and Kathleen Vohs have some answers to why we shop or spend on a whim.

Shop before you drop

Two U researchers collaborate to study impulse buying

By Danny LaChance

From eNews, June 12, 2008

In higher education circles these days, it's fashionable to talk about interdisciplinary collaborations. The most important discoveries of the 21st century, we're told, will be made not by some intrepid soul working in one field, but by teams of researchers who bring different disciplinary perspectives to some of our most perplexing puzzles.

But what does interdisciplinary collaboration actually look like? And how, exactly, does it produce all this touted progress?

Ron Faber and Kathleen Vohs have one answer. He's a CLA researcher in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She's a professor of marketing and logistics management in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

Collaborating with each other for years, the two have been able to make some unique connections between their respective disciplines and, as a result, have increased our understanding of impulse buying.

White bears and empty pockets

Vohs and Faber wanted to know how and why we purchase goods on a whim, and they each had a set of knowledge that, alone, couldn't answer the question properly.

"I understood the self-control failure model," Vohs explains. "The psychological theory that we have a limited amount of resources that we can use each day to resist the temptation for immediate gratification in order to achieve longer-term goals. Think of your capacity for self control as a gas tank in a car. When you successfully curb that impulse to devour a 1,000-calorie burrito by reminding yourself of your weight-loss goals, you press down on an accelerator, spending a bit of the gas in your tank. The more you control your impulses, the more gas you use. After operating for a long time, people, like cars, run out of gas: they become less able to resist their impulses in order to meet longer-term goals."

But would this theory explain people's behavior when it came to impulse buying? That's where Faber came in.

"I knew I could count on Ron to flesh out the spending, the consumer context in which the model was applied," Vohs says.

The two crafted a series of experiments that tested whether shoppers are more likely to buy impulsively after "spending" self-control resources. Their hunches were correct: Those asked to expend lots of resources by engaging in certain tasks--not thinking about a white bear during a 10-minute writing exercise or ignoring random words that flashed along the bottom of a screen during a boring video--were later more likely to buy products impulsively and to value them at higher dollar amounts when compared to people who were not asked to control themselves. The results suggest that we're much more likely to buy impulsively after we've spent a good deal of time making choices and regulating our behavior. The implications of the research are numerous, Faber says. "If you don't want to make impulse purchases, break your shopping into shorter trips. Don't do all your shopping at once. If you have a really tough day, don't go shopping," he adds.

Crossing over

One of the key benefits of working with scholars from a different disciplines is that they tend to ask new questions and challenge the core assumptions of your own discipline, Vohs says. "Psychologists consider self control as having a lot to do with persistence. When people show good self control, they persist in the face of struggle or difficult demands," she explains. And when they give up quickly, they are exhibiting poor self control. Her colleagues in the business school, however, didn't see it that way. When she explained to them how psychologists classify behaviors as signaling low self control, "They said, 'Why is [abandoning a struggle] a sign of low self control rather than good self control? Perhaps these subjects knew where to put their energy in a judicious manner,'" Vohs recounts. Cross-disciplinary interactions like these, Vohs says, can ultimately lead to the revision of concepts that have been taken for granted for years by specialists in a field. "Ron knows the right questions to ask," says Vohs.

"He'll ask, 'Now, why do you do it like that?' Those challenges can sometimes lead to major new insights into the fundamental nature of what you're studying."