Have you ever regretted eating that hamburger or that pizza some days later? Probably you have, and you are not the only one. How can this possibly be explained? Well, we are humans, it all lies in the way we perceive our own self-control.

Self-control is the concept of sacrificing short-term pleasure for an important long-term benefit. All existing theories are based on this idea of conflict of preferences between the “now” self and the “future” self. The “now” will seek (and consume) a tempting good, but the “future” one would regret such consumption.

Following this idea, preferences are a key element to have present. It is crucial to understand the reflection of individual taste as it explains one’s choice of consumption. Therefore, to address this opposing conflict we have to explore various properties of preferences and relate them with time.

Firstly, it must be recognized that the conflict between the present and the future implies that preferences actually change over time. This is what behavioural economists and scientists like to call time-inconsistent preferences.  Similarly, preferences are usually ranked, meaning that one is more important than the other. So, as the importance of immediate gratification fades quickly as time passes, long-term preferences end up being superior to the short-term ones, forming a hierarchy which consequently characterizes all forms of self-control conflicts. Considering the previously mentioned characteristics, talking about anticipated regret seems pretty logical. Smoking a cigarette provides pleasure to the smoker, but brings with it a sore throat immediately after smoking and potentially cancer in the long term. Knowing this, the smoker who anticipates that he may regret giving into the temptation of smoking a cigarette is experiencing a self-control conflict.

self control conflict

Where does this bring us? Around 96% of the papers that explore the concept of self-control and present it use this idea that self-control lies where there is a given sacrifice of pleasure. More recently this idea is being presented as flawed mainly because of its assumptions. On one hand, it assumes that all consumers trade-off short-term goals with long-term ones and that the absence of a self-control conflict would inevitably result in the choice of the long-term goal (while the short-term goal always represents a breakdown in self-control).

Nevertheless, many elements may change since not all consumers pursue the same superordinate long-term goals. Consider the choice between pizza and grilled chicken salad. A consumer may choose the former but not necessarily experience a self-control failure because he/she does not care about restraining her calorie intake, or because she is a vegetarian, or because she likes pizza more than salad. (Actually, even though American consumers, in general, believe the better a food tastes the less healthy it is, in a recent cross-national survey conducted in the US, UK, France and Belgium, consumers associated ‘unhealthy’ only weakly with ‘tasty’).

Why is this relevant? This is a powerful insight into consumer behaviour that is even relevant in policymaking. A good example of this is the food industry. Behavioural economists cannot substitute nutritionists but they can find a way to help consumers align their goals and actual behaviour with objective criteria. Consumer behaviour researchers can devise interventions that motivate consumers to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. Based on this “theorizing”, it should also be easier to exert self-control when abandoning the idea that pleasurable and beneficial consumption (hedonic consumption) represents a self-control failure. Rather than categorizing foods into good and bad, consumers could train themselves to use relative quantities as a benchmark for harmful consumption. Rationing portion sizes and consumption frequency are indeed powerful strategies to limit food-intake since how much we eat is as much governed by a food’s tastiness as by serving size.

Beyond food and bad habits, self-control is present in our day to day and regret is inherent to human nature. The more we sacrifice short-term pleasure for an important long-term benefit, the more we become aware and the less probable we are to be disappointed over something that we did or failed to do. Regardless, not everything in life is to be regretted and some things are meant to be done today.

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