The Benefits of Behaving Badly on Occasion: Successful Regulation by Planned Hedonic Deviations

Rita Coelho do Vale, Rik Pieters, Marcel Zeelenberg

Scientific Abstract

This research tests the idea that goal-pursuit that requires extended inhibition of desires, such as weight loss and financial saving, can benefit from including planned hedonic deviations in the goal-striving plan. Two controlled experiments (simulated and real dieting) demonstrate that including planned goal deviations during extended goal striving, compared with following a straight and rigid goal striving process, (1) helps regain self-regulatory resources, (2) helps maintain consumers' motivation to pursue with regulatory tasks, and (3) has a positive impact on affect experienced, which all contribute to facilitate long-term goal- adherence. A third study, conducted with current goalstrivers provides further evidence of the benefits of planned hedonic deviations for goal pursuit across a variety of goals. This reveals that it may be beneficial for long-term goal-success to occasionally be bad, as long it is planned.

Layperson Abstract

Is it smart to have a chocolate cake when you are on a diet to lose weight? Is it a good idea to spend money on something feeble today when you are trying hard to save money for a larger purchase next month? Most people would answer these questions negatively, thinking they should systematically and consistently try to control the desires that conflict with an important current goal. There are several examples of this in our daily life. For example, the Overeaters Anonymous organization stresses the importance of sustained commitment to abstinence for goal attainment (i.e., to stop drinking) also several diet plans identify “bad foods” that should be avoided at all times (e.g., Atkins diet, South beach diet). In fact, it seems to exist this belief that any hedonic deviations from the focal goal should be avoided since they are detrimental to goal attainment, as the examples given at the beginning of this paragraph.

The aim of this research was to understand to what extent including planned hedonic deviations is helpful to help consumers persist in their personal quests, especially those that involve the repeated inhibition of behaviors- like dieting, saving, and exercising.

In contrast to the general belief that consumers should categorically resist goal deviations, we propose that including planned hedonic goal-deviation activities a priori in the initial goal implementation plans may actually be beneficial for long term goal attainment, such as by occasionally having a chocolate cake when on a diet. In our set of hypotheses we propose that planned goal deviations can help consumers’ motivation to persist in goal-striving, improve emotional experience, and help consumers regain self-regulatory resources, which altogether may ultimately reduce the likelihood of goal desistance. Basically we propose that it may be good in the long run to behave “badly” on occasion, as long as it is planned (and happens not too often).

We stress the importance of planned deviations because when consumers share the belief that any deviation from current goal striving represents a failure, they may end up overemphasizing any initial lapse, such that even small misalignments result in total abandonment of the goal- an effect often called “what-the- hell effect”. Dieters are frequently cited as an example of this effect since they often quit dieting when they start “failing”, i.e., when they start not resisting eating some of the forbidden foods.

How did we test for our hypotheses?

We conducted two controlled experiments (Studies 1 and 2) on weight loss and then we run an online study with a sample of people that indicated to be currently striving for a goal that included the repeated inhibition of behaviors overtime. The weight loss context of the first two studies was chosen because eating is indicated by many authors to be one of the most commonplace, yet least well understood, self-regulation domains, and because dieters tend to interrupt their weight loss goals many times. Study 1 used a role-playing task where participants simulated a dieting experience by making food choices for seven consecutive days. Study 2 searched for extra evidence, but this time participants actually followed different diet-plans, over a period of two weeks. In this second study participants had to follow a specific diet plan that was given to them and to answer to daily and weekly questions where we assessed how much did they deviate from the diet, how motivated they were to pursue with it, how much did they feel quitting, among many other questions. Study 3 was run online and with a sample of current goal-strivers. It provided evidence of the benefits of flexibility on goal-pursuit across a variety of goals and domains, and not exclusively for the weight loss context.

What did we find out?

We discovered that when goal-deviation behaviors are part of the long-term plan, they help consumers to regain self-regulatory ability, to maintain or even increase motivation to persist in the goal-pursuit, and to contribute to the experience of positive emotions, which altogether is likely to positively influence goal adherence and thus the likelihood of final goal attainment.

Why are these results interesting? What are the implications?

These results are very exciting because they highlight that including flexibility in goal-pursuit plans does not affect negatively consumers’ ability to attain these since consumers seem to find way of compensating for any goal-deviations. They reveal the importance of flexibility in goal pursuit, and that it can be good in the long-run to behave badly in the short-run, when this is part of the plan. We found evidence for the benefits of this “hedonic planned goal deviation” in a dieting context, across student and non-student samples, but also on a variety of other goals (in the online study). This means that “failures” don’t need to be perceived as such, as long as consumers understand they can be a means to reach something bigger at the end (the main overarching goal).

Our findings are especially relevant in times, such as these, with a recognized need for consumer researchers to understand the excessive food consumption that contributes to worldwide epidemic-like obesity.

Who should be interested in our results?

Both consumers and public policy makers should be interested in our results since they highlight that rather that engaging in straight, persistent goal-striving (as is often recommended in the applied self-help literature), consumers are better off when they plan for moments of indulgence.

“It is important to consider not only the outcomes of goal pursuit but also the process and, especially, strength of engagement in the goal pursuit activity itself.” Higgins and Scholer (2009).

“At a time of increasing obesity, understanding what influences how much we eat is as relevant as understanding what we eat” Wansink and Chandon (2014)

In fact, intermittent goal striving appears to be a powerful strategy to increase goal-persistence.