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Q&A: Self-control, choice, fear and desire for normalcy underpin behavior as economy re-opens

May. 15, 2020, 2:46 PM

Kelly Goldsmith, PhD

by Holly Fletcher

Consumer behavior expert, Kelly Goldsmith, PHD, delves into how conflicting motivations – a desire for normalcy and being safe – will play out as the economy begins to re-open in Nashville and Tennessee.

People will have to navigate daily decision-making in routine situations that now hold the possibility of disease, and spur anxiety – all while wanting desperately to return to life pre-COVID-19.

“Knowing how badly people want to feel normal, it’s scary to me to think about how quickly the wheels could come off the bus here with respect to all the behaviors we’ve been working so hard to put in place,” said Goldsmith, Associate Professor of Marketing at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management.

 

What do you expect behavior to look like as the economy begins to reopen?

As a consumer behavior researcher, I would love to tell you that everybody is going to continue to wash their hands, and stand six feet apart, and do the right thing. But I just don’t think that’s the way consumer psychology works, especially here in the United States, where we really pride ourselves on being independent.

All these restrictions we’ve been willing to comply with, it feels a little bit like we’re pushing down on a spring. When you take your hand off the spring, it’s going to bounce back up — kind of fast and fierce. So my fear is that when these restrictions start to lift, people just aren’t going to be able to control themselves in the sense that they want to feel normal, they want to hang out with their friends, they want to go to the bars and restaurants they always used to go to, etc.

In the short run, we could see a bit of an overcorrection. Like I said, that hand coming off the spring, where people are going to be doing a little bit too much, a little bit too fast, and it could have negative consequences for our collective health.

In the short run, we could see a bit of an overcorrection. Like I said, that hand coming off the spring, where people are going to be doing a little bit too much, a little bit too fast, and it could have negative consequences for our collective health.

 

How does the desire to be normal compete with fear of COVID-19?

One thing that is really fascinating about what we’re living through right now is we’re seeing consumers have a lot of conflicting motivations.

We want to take care of ourselves – that’s a strong self-protective motive. But we also so desperately want to feel normal, right? We would love to wake up tomorrow and for this never to have happened. We would love for this all to be a bad dream. Those motives are in conflict because one way you can tell yourself that this never really happened is to go straight back to behaving like you were before.

So, if we all just go back to doing everything we did beforehand, and maybe even crank it up a notch because we’re so eager to feel like our old selves, then obviously, there are negative health consequences.

There’s also economic risk because if you go back to spending the way you were when we were living in the longest bull market of all time, that’s a little unhealthy given we’re actually now in a very tense situation. There’s a lot of uncertainty about our collective economic future.

 

In terms of holding down that proverbial spring, do you think people are waiting for someone to be the first or will people go out in a rush?

That depends on the person. Honestly, I fear for the American consumer because I think we’re all going to experience a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety. This pandemic has really put the consumer in a lose-lose situation.

We so badly want to get paid; we want to feel normal; we want to support the economy; we don’t want our local businesses to fail. But on the other hand, we don’t want to die. We don’t want our parents to die. I don’t have a short answer for what people are supposed to do or how people are going to respond to it.

When people talk about the mental health crisis that people anticipate will come in the wake of COVID, this conflict offers a very valid reason to be concerned. Pre-COVID, it was stressful to be a consumer in the world. COVID now layers on top of that stress an unprecedented level “goal conflict” – wherein it’s just really tough for people to know what they are “supposed” to be doing.

I think when they open up Broadway and all the Honky Tonks, it’s going to be packed.

That’s an interesting point about the stress of being a consumer right now. There is anxiety around going to the grocery, putting fuel in your car, or going to the pharmacy. How does the stress factor in? 

Regardless of our individual risk preferences, it’s going to be hard for all of us to go back to normal in some ways. The examples you gave are perfect – these basic things are going to feel scary for a while. But the tough part is, we’re so desperate to go back to normal, they’re going to feel scary….until they don’t. Then when they stop feeling scary, all bets are kind of off with respect to our willingness to take on all kinds of new activities, like going out in big groups or not washing our hands diligently or not taking some hand sanitizer with us.

Knowing how badly people want to feel normal, it’s scary to me to think about how quickly the wheels could come off the bus here with respect to all the behaviors we’ve been working so hard to put in place.

 

Keeping the wheels on the bus – aka the rate of infection down means depending on people’s decision-making in response to conflict?

Exerting self-control is hard in any individual instance. If your whole day is just a series of events that require you to “do the right thing” and “do the hard thing” over and over again, your day is exhausting. There’s plenty of research in psychology that shows people just can’t keep that going.

What’s interesting is actually having these [stay at home] restrictions take the self-control piece out of it, because we can’t do it, right? We don’t have to make a choice because certain things aren’t available.

When people have to make a tradeoff between concerns about health, and concerns about supporting the economy — both of which are important things — those choices are very depleting. When we deplete our central resource for self-control – what’s called ‘ego depletion’ — it just gets harder and harder over time to make those “right” choices. What you’ll see is people backsliding and doing the easy thing, even if it’s not always in their best interest.

What’s important to keep in mind is here, in America, we love the idea of being independent. We love the idea of making our own choices. There’s a lot of great things about that, but the downside is making those choices and being independent is quite difficult when we’re facing these really meaningful goal conflicts.

From a policy standpoint, what we’ve got to do is, to the extent possible, keep people appraised about the data, keep people educated about the associated risks. There will come a time, probably in the not too distant future, where we’ve just got to let people make their own choices. But again, hopefully they will attend to the information and do what’s best for them.

I think it’s scary when you’re giving the reins over to a population of people who have been kind of suppressed. We’re thrusting them into a situation where every day is bound to a series of self-control conflicts, and now we’re leaving consumers to their own devices. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, but I have a hard time betting on people’s self-control.

How do the COVID pandemic safety guidelines interplay with decision-making?

To understand how self-control breaks down, it’s good to take a step back and think about how psychologists have studied it in the past. Usually they’re looking at people that are in a single lab experiment for like 20 minutes. They will give people these self-control tasks, like suppressing your emotions or ignoring certain information. Researchers then look at your subsequent unrelated choices — let’s say a choice between a fatty, tasty snack or a healthy, but less tasty snack. What they find is people who engage in those acts of self-control subsequently exert less self-control on the tasks that come after, so they’re more likely to choose the indulgent snack.

That’s the risk we run here. If you’re going through your day and every single thing you have to think about: Did I bring my hand sanitizer? What about my mask? Do I put it on? Do I not put it on? Do I touch the mailbox? Do I get gas? If every single choice you make is a self-control conflict, you’re going to be shot by the end of the day.

It’s scary because generally don’t understand how self-control starts to wear out the more you use it. We have all this great evidence in our own mind of all of these awesome things we’ve done in our life. We rely on those when we think about our future and we think ‘no problem. I’m the kind of person who does great things. I’m gonna have no problem washing my hands and sitting six feet apart.’

I think it’s scary when you’re giving the reins over to a population of people who have been kind of suppressed. We’re thrusting them into a situation where every day is bound to a series of self-control conflicts, and now we’re leaving consumers to their own devices. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, but I have a hard time betting on people’s self-control.

 

Is there literature about how consumer behavior interplays with a pandemic or public health?

I will say that literature to date has been a little bit siloed. I don’t think we thought we were siloed in the past, but then a pandemic happens, and we realize all the things we don’t know. There’s literature on health and medical decision making and then there’s a literature on consumers in the store, how consumers respond to marketing, etc., but there hasn’t been a lot of overlap with respect to how a health crisis affects consumers. The closest we’ve gotten in terms of the research would be how individual level health issues affect you as a consumer or your psychology. But a pandemic? Not so much.

My research on scarcity and uncertainty started in the wake of the 2008 recession. We were looking at what happens when there are no products on the shelves, when people’s jobs are uncertain, and how people respond to those types of things. But critically, that was largely focused on resource scarcity or financial deprivation.

It will be really interesting to study consumer behavior moving forward. Because what’s unique about the pandemic, is that it shows you, in so many ways, how interdependent we are — not just within our own countries, but even globally. We all sat there watching the news, and watching this virus spread around the world. COVID has really shown us how connected we are, not just in terms of the supply chain and businesses, which are obviously interconnected globally, but really in terms of individual-level health.

We kind of rise or fall together. I think that’s going to be a real wake up call.

 

What are you going to be watching for in Tennessee?

 The news, the death rates, things like infection rates — but what I’m Number One going to be watching for as someone interested in consumer behavior, is really if we see that almost ironic bounce back where people overcorrect.  And even in spite of all the economic uncertainty, there’s a lot of spending or there’s a lot of beach vacations, or what many people would see is risky behavior today. Of interest to me is if, for some people, there’s going to be this really strong overcorrection where they’re trying to reestablish their sense of freedom by doing all those things, they were told they couldn’t do.

Everyone’s got a different risk profile. We’ll see we’ll see if that happens and we’ll see the extent to which that happens. There’s evidence of it thus far. When the beaches in California opened up, they were packed, and California has been one of the more aggressive states in terms of social distancing and the restrictions that they put in place.

I think when they open up Broadway and all the Honky Tonks, it’s going to be packed.

 

Is there something that’s missing from the conversation about opening up that you think needs to be further explored?

There seems to be this assumption that because this pandemic has been so real and so scary that all of a sudden, we, as consumers here in the United States are going to reach these unprecedented levels of self-control, where we’re going to be able to cut back our spending, we’re going to be able to make the “healthy choices.” I just think you’re betting against a lot of our history, which suggests that that’s something we struggle with. I struggle with it!

And this is also betting against the marketers, right? There’s a saying, “the house always wins” — and that’s true. Marketers are not getting worse at their jobs, because you’re not buying. They’re getting better. They’ve been sitting on Zoom calls for the past two months, brainstorming how they can get us to buy more. They’re desperate to keep their jobs and keep their companies afloat! I’m just not willing to bet against those people who have been so good, historically, at getting us to kind of act against our own self-control, and to open up our wallets. I’m hoping that as consumers, people (including myself!) have the strength to do what’s in our own best interest.

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