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How the cult of busy impacts what people buy

Category: Blog & News

Should you remind your customers how busy they are?

That was the topic explored by researchers Kim, Wadhwa and Chattopadhyay (Journal of Consumer Research, forthcoming 2018) who were interested in how perception of busyness impacted consumer decision-making.

Past research has suggested that time pressure leads customers to rely on feelings rather than facts, resulting in lapsed self-control and a preference for indulgent products. When short on time, in other words, we cut corners and prefer expedience to virtue, donuts to salad.

This research was slightly different because the researchers investigated perception of busyness rather than whether customers were in fact under any time pressure. 

The difference, as the researchers state, is that “people perceive themselves as busy when they simply feel they are occupied with work or have a lot of work to do, whereas feeling pressed for time is triggered by the concern for insufficient time to complete the tasks at hand”.

This look as mindset is important because ‘busy’ has become a badge of honour, whether or not it is objectively true. People perceive busy people of high status, and being busy is increasingly related to how people feel about themselves. For many, busyness increases their sense of self-importance.

Busyness enhances self-control

In the first of seven studies, the researchers monitored items purchased in a university cafeteria for how healthy they were. When signage in the café cued students to think about being busy (e.g. “Good to go for busy students”) compared to a neutral sign (e.g. “Good to go for summer students), they chose significantly fewer unhealthy items and items with significantly fewer calories.

In a second study, participants who reviewed a print ad for an indulgent fast-food outlet were less willing to purchase the bacon burger when the ad carried a busyness-related tagline.

Additional studies found:

  • Participants who were primed to think about busyness and then offered a cookie were less likely to eat one framed indulgently as a “delicious sugar” cookie but (surprisingly) more likely to eat one called a “healthy oatmeal” cookie.
  • A busy mindset increased the preference for extra credit work over a free day amongst students.
  • A busy mindset only increased self-control for those who believed being busy was good. Those with a low work ethic were unaffected.
  • A busy mindset increased self-control when it was not accompanied by a high-level of time pressure.

Key take-outs

Up till now, the theory in marketing has been to link busyness with indulgent choices; “you’re a busy person, you deserve a donut!” type messages. And in some contexts, I still think this applies. Research by Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999) has shown, for example, that people are more likely to opt for an indulgent snack after their self-controlling, cognitively intense System 2 has been depleted. When people are tired, in other words, they opt for ease.

But being fatigued is not necessarily the same as being busy, and this latest suggests reminding people of their busyness actually makes them think about their self-importance, and through that, increases their self-control. The message is more appropriately, “you’re a busy person, you deserve the best!”

I think the bottom line is self-identity. We know from other research by Patrick and Hagtveddt (2017, PDF) that saying “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” can enhance self-control. Now we have research that reminding people of their identity as a busy person increases the odds they will resist temptation. For us in business it just reiterates the need to understand your customer’s world and support how they see themselves. If you are selling something healthy or virtuous, cuing busyness may work in your favour. If you are selling an indulgence, talking about fatigue or time being short may be a better bet.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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