Learn from Your Mistakes? Forget About It!

Those who don’t know history, the saying goes, are doomed to repeat it. But Carroll School of Management Assistant Professor Hristina Nikolova says that even knowing your own history may not help you exercise better self-control in your decision-making.

Nikolova is the lead author of a study, published recently in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, that shows the effectiveness of memory in improving the way we make decisions depends on what we recall and how easily it comes to mind.

“Despite the common belief that remembering our mistakes will help us make better decisions,” says Nikolova, a faculty member in the Carroll School Marketing Department, “we actually find that thinking about our failures at self-control leads us to repeat mistakes.

“For example, people often think that remembering the last time they didn’t hesitate to enjoy eating the delicious, 2,000-calorie chocolate cake will help them resist the delicious dessert menu and go for some fruits instead. However, our findings reveal that remembering such self-control failures would lead people to indulge again in the present.”

The first-of-its-kind study, “Haunts or Helps From the Past: Understanding the Effect of Recall on Current Self-Control,” was conducted by Nikolova with Cait Lamberton, associate professor with the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, and Kelly L. Haws, associate professor with the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University.

Nikolova and her colleagues believe their research could be used by marketers who seek to design programs and interventions to help people with different self-control issues, such as credit card debt and unhealthy eating.

In a series of experiments conducted over four years, the authors examined how the content of consumers’ recollections – whether they focus on their past successes or failures at self-control – and the limits of their memory – whether they recall few or many such instances – affected their decisions in self-control dilemmas such as budgeting money and time, and persistence with challenging tasks.

For example, participants remembered instances in which they were faced with the temptation to splurge on an expensive but unnecessary item that they really liked, and whether they were able to successfully control their spending behavior or failed to do so. Some participants were asked to recall two such instances, while others were instructed to recall 10.

Subsequently, all participants were asked to imagine they were at a shopping mall and indicate how much credit card debt they were willing to incur to buy something they had wanted for a long time, such as a pair of shoes, a handbag, or a video game. Results revealed that participants who recalled 10 successes in self-control were willing to take on about 21 percent more credit card debt than those who recalled just two successes. Furthermore, groups of participants who recalled two or 10 failures in self-control were both likely to incur as much credit card debt as those who recalled 10 successes.

Nikolova says the findings reveal that consumers only show better self-control following reflection on their past under very specific conditions. And when it comes to remembering successful self-control experiences, she says, less is actually more.

“When people recall two past successes at self-control, these instances come to mind easily. It is relatively easy for everyone to think of two such successes. This ease of recall makes people believe that that they are good at self-control, and are the kind of person who can resist temptations. Since people usually want to be consistent with their views of themselves, they restrain again in tempting situations in the present.”

Participants asked to recall 10 successes, on the other hand, experienced difficulty in coming up with so many examples, she says, which made them conclude that they must not be good at self-control – and these participants indulged more than those who recalled only two successes.

Individuals who remember failed attempts at self-control, meanwhile, are more likely to repeat them. The authors found that participants who recalled self-control failures engaged in equivalent levels of indulgence regardless of whether they recalled few or many such instances.

The influence of mood on memory also might be a factor in our everyday self-control, Nikolova adds. “When we have to think about our failures, that puts us in a negative mood – and research has shown that when people are in a negative mood state, they tend to indulge to make themselves feel better.”

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