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Self-control, smells and habits

Being disorganized can lead to impulse spending, as can buying lottery tickets. Meanwhile, loneliness can cause materialism, and just thinking of how something smells can induce you to buy more.

Those are findings from just a few academic studies recently in the field of consumer behavior. Many studies, mostly aimed at marketers, research why consumers make the choices they do, what pushes them to buy or not buy, or opt for one product over another.

The results can be instructive for consumers too, if for no other reason than to realize that we don't always make logical, rational buying choices.

Consumers' self-control and materialism are common topics of study.

"Materialism, a set of beliefs about the importance of possessions in a consumer's life, is associated with a host of negative outcomes," writes author Hyeongmin (Christian) Kim of Johns Hopkins University in a recent study. He points to impulse buying and excessive debt as results of poor self-control.

It can affect your happiness.

"It is well-documented that materialistic consumers struggle with their materialistic longings and sometimes show poor self-control," Kim wrote. "Self-control is perhaps one of the most important attributes that a person needs to have a successful life."

Here are some recent findings about consumer behavior — specifically, our materials and lack of self-control — published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior.

A disorganized environment can leave you feeling out of control, which drains your reserves for future self-control, leading to poor decisions, including impulse spending, conclude Boyoun Grace Chae of the University of British Columbia and Rui Juliet Zhu of Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.

For example, in experiments the authors found that people in a cluttered room were more likely to pay higher prices for products, such as a TV or movie tickets, compared with people in an organized room, according to the study "Environmental Disorder Leads to Self-Regulatory Failure."

Researchers predicted that if a person was responsible for his or her own messy environment — rather than ones created by researchers in the experiments — the effect would be even more depleting to self-control.

"Our research has crucial practical implications concerning public health and consumer well-being," the authors wrote.

Maybe the takeaway is to tidy up your environment — clean that sink full of dishes, put away the clothes on the bedroom floor, clean your desk at work — to help preserve the energy you need to be a smarter consumer.

Another hit to your self-control could come if marketers used advertisements to help you imagine what foods smell like, such as chocolate chip cookies or fresh-baked bread, according to Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan, Maureen Morrin of Temple University and Eda Sayin of Koc University.

Ads containing olfactory imagery that encourage consumers to imagine an odor — what researchers call "smellizing" — can help sell food by making consumers salivate and consume the item in greater quantities, the study found.

"Consumers who engage in olfactory imagery may virtually re-experience events from the past more vividly, thus enhancing the appeal of products or services under consideration for purchase," the authors wrote.

It only works when an image of the object associated with emitting the odor is present, not when just asking consumers to imagine the odor. So a radio ad prompting listeners to imagine the smell of a breakfast muffin might not help a marketer.

Perhaps the lesson for food marketers is to buy ads that use odor cues. They could be worth every scent.

The simple act of buying a lottery ticket — or even thinking about buying one — can trigger materialistic thoughts, which cause consumers to lose self-control, Kim found in the study, "Situational Materialism: How Entering Lotteries May Undermine Self-Control."

In one study, researchers instructed participants to buy a lottery ticket with a jackpot of $1 million. A second group of consumers did not. Consumers who bought a lottery ticket had more materialistic thoughts and showed stronger preferences for a small, immediate reward — the opposite of delayed gratification, which is so important in many sound money decisions.

"Because people, upon entering a lottery, tend to think about specific purchases and a rush of pleasurable thoughts accompanies them — for example, 'I would buy a red BMW Z4 convertible' — these thoughts appear to crowd out other thoughts related to the downsides of spending or more prudent ways the money might be used," Kim wrote.

"It is widely believed that there is a vicious cycle in which loneliness leads to materialism and materialism, in turn, contributes to loneliness," writes author Rik Pieters of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

But not so fast, he says. Materialism may not entirely deserve its bad reputation.

Loneliness contributes more to materialism than the other way around, Pieters found after studying more than 2,500 consumers over six years.

It's true that loneliness increased over time for consumers who valued material possessions as a measure of success or a type of "happiness medicine." But loneliness decreased for those who sought possessions just for the sheer joy and fun of consuming, he found.

Perhaps the most famous studies about self-control were experiments by then-Stanford University psychology professor Walter Mischel in the 1960s.

Pre-school children were told they would be left alone in a room with a single treat, sometimes a marshmallow. When the adult researcher left the room, the child was free to eat the treat. The child was told, however, that if he or she resisted the temptation and did not eat the marshmallow until the researcher returned to the room about 15 minutes later, they would get two marshmallows.

The most profound results of the study came when Mischel tracked down those children later in life.

Children in the experiment who were able to delay gratification, waiting until the researcher returned and claiming the bonus marshmallow, grew up to have fewer behavioral problems, higher scores on college entrance exams, better attention spans and superior social relationships.

In short, they had more life success as adults.

The study was long cited as evidence that such self-discipline was a major contributor to personal success, perhaps more than other factors such as intelligence.

A more recent study in 2012 at the University of Rochester built on Mischel's research. It suggested the child's choices might also be influenced by how much the kid trusted the researcher to come back with the second marshmallow — that nature and nurture influenced the marshmallow decision.

Gregory Karp writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Self-control, smells and habits