It’s usually hard to resist temptation, whether it’s eating, smoking, alcohol or buying unnecessary things, annd more and more people are experiencing unbridled consumption as a problem. However, Eline de Vries has discovered that there is a very easy way to reduce the urge to consume – friendship. ‘By thinking of a good friendship, you increase your self-control, thus helping you to say no to temptation.’ De Vries will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on Thursday 19 September.
Consumption is possible anywhere, anytime, certainly in our 24x7 economy. If you are suddenly hit by the urge to buy in the middle of the night, there’s always a webshop – they never close. Even if you avoid webshops and shopping centres, you’re constantly being tempted to buy something, eat unhealthily, smoke or drink alcohol. This is particularly difficult for people with low self-control, whether that is a chronic or a temporary problem. Low self-control can be caused, for example, by consumers having just resisted a different temptation or by a long working day. De Vries: ‘When you are very tired it’s much more difficult to resist the temptation to consume.’
‘Several studies have shown that friendship is very good for people. It has a positive influence on both your mental and your physical wellbeing’, according to De Vries. ‘I investigated whether friendship can play a positive role in resisting temptation. This has indeed turned out to be the case.’ De Vries acknowledges that there is an interesting paradox here. ‘Everyone is familiar with the image of groups of girls really letting their hair down while shopping. However, if you consciously think of friendship, this will increase your self-control.’
The ability to ignore the urge to consume is affected by two things, explains De Vries. ‘You must first recognize the conflict. Somebody who can’t see the harm in buying another pair of shoes or yet another greasy snack will have significantly more problems controlling themselves than someone who realises that such purchases are not sensible.’ The second step is actually imposing the self-control. Thinking about friendship helps with both steps, De Vries discovered. ‘What’s more, friendship weakens the urge to buy and strengthens the ability to say no.’
This is partly due to the fact that thinking of friendship influences the way that someone processes information. ‘Everyone processes information in two ways – locally and globally. I sometimes compare it with a visit to a sweetshop. With local processing you focus on concrete issues and details – all the tasty things lying there. With global processing you look more at the complete picture – how is the shop fitted out? People who think about friendship mainly process information globally. The temptations are thus less than when they mainly concentrate on the details.’
One of the ways that De Vries conducted her research was to get the test subjects to very consciously think about friendship. This was done by getting them to describe a situation where they had experienced true friendship. The same people then took part in a (fictitious) taste test for new M&M’s. De Vries: ‘They were allowed to eat as many as they wanted, so they could judge the taste properly. What the test subjects did not know was that the sweets were weighed before and afterwards.’ It turned out that the people who temporarily had low self-control, and who had thought about friendship, ate significantly fewer M&M’s than the control group, who had just described the production process of a table. ‘The ability to say no to eating M&M’s was much stronger in the first group.’
According to De Vries, her discoveries can easily be applied to therapies for people with problems in controlling their urge to consume, including compulsive shopping, obesity or excessive alcohol consumption. The conclusions could also have an immediate effect in daily life, states De Vries. ‘I can imagine that it would help to have a photo of your best friend in your purse or wallet. That would activate thoughts on a good friendship right at the moment when you are being tempted to buy something.’
Eline de Vries (Groningen, 1984) studied Research Based Marketing and Social Psychology at the University of Groningen. She conducted her PhD research within the Consumer Behavior group of the department of Marketing of the Faculty of Economics and Business. Her thesis is entitled: Consumed with consumption: the impact of friendship on consumer self-control. Her supervisors were Prof. B.M. Fennis and Prof. T.H.A. Bijmolt. Her cosupervisor was Dr D. Trampe. De Vries has been working as an assistant professor of Marketing at the Department of Business Administration of the University Carlos III in Madrid since 1 October.
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