PULLMAN, Wash. – If you’ve ever headed to the store with a single purchase in mind, only to find yourself paying for half a dozen items at the checkout, you’re not alone. Retail outlets do such a good job tapping buyers’ inner urges that Americans spend $4 billion on impulse purchases every year.

But with a little exercise, even weak-willed shoppers can fight the impulsive buying urge and win, say marketing researchers at the Washington State University College of Business and Kuwait University. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Marketing Letters, Jeff Joireman and David Sprott of the Department of Marketing at WSU and Abdullah Sultan of the Department of Management and Marketing at Kuwait University show how simple and seemingly unrelated exercises can strengthen consumers’ capacity for self-control and reduce their urge to engage in impulsive buying.

“One of the more interesting findings from our research is that such relatively simple exercises, practiced over such a short time span, were able to significantly reduce impulsive buying urges and intentions,” said Joiremann.
Building on earlier research showing how repeated exercises can enhance self-control for people struggling with such problems as gambling, drinking and eating, the trio of researchers created an experiment designed to test whether simple physical and mental exercises practiced over a two-week time span would prove effective in reducing impulsive buying urges and intentions.
Four groups of participants – all college students – were used in the study, in which they responded to scenarios intended to simulate impulse buying opportunities following a two-week exercise period. One group was instructed to perform scheduled cognitive, or mental, exercises, while a second was instructed to perform scheduled physical exercises. The two remaining groups served as control groups and were given no exercises to perform.
The first group of participants was instructed to visit a website every few days to perform what is known as the Stroop color naming task, an exercise in which participants are asked to name the color of text used in words represented on the screen, rather than the color spelled out by the words themselves (e.g., if the word “blue” appears in red, the respondent should say “red”).
Because the reader’s tendency is to name the word itself, rather than the color of the text, the researchers reasoned that such an exercise might be expected to help participants build up self-control resources as they gradually learned to improve their performance on the task.
Participants in the physical exercise group were instructed to visit a different website, where they typed words appearing in an article provided to them and were asked to maintain good posture (and to avoid bad posture) while completing the task. Good and bad postures were illustrated on the website. Additionally, participants in the physical intervention were asked to walk erectly during the two-week period on a daily basis.
Following the two-week exercise period, all participants were presented with an impulse-buying scenario. What the researchers found was that participants in both exercise groups were able to “beef up” their self-control significantly when compared with the control groups.
“On average, we found that the purchase intentions of the participants in the exercise groups were about one point less on a seven point scale,” said Joireman. “If control group participants in our scenario indicated an average purchase intention of 4 – which is basically ‘undecided’ – exercise participants were more likely to indicate an average purchase intention of 3, which corresponds to ‘somewhat less likely to buy.’ ”
Joireman, who earned his doctorate in psychology, said the researchers have a good deal of confidence that the exercises are indeed effective in enhancing people’s self-control.
”We’re not the only ones showing these exercise effects. We see it consistently across earlier studies, as well,” he said. “The real question is ‘why is this happening?’ At this point, we do not have evidence for the mechanism underlying the exercise effect.
“However, previous research suggests that consistent exercise may help the brain’s self-control systems become more efficient at monitoring and resolving conflicts between intended and unintended actions,” he said. “This, in turn, may help the consumer stay focused on the planned purchase and suppress the urge to engage in unintended, impulsive buying.”
He said a number of previous studies demonstrate that an individual’s amount of self-control is not fixed, but rather varies over time depending on how much the brain’s control systems are “used.” Joireman and his fellow researchers speculate that this may well be an indication that the brain’s control systems do, indeed, operate like a muscle – becoming “fatigued” as they are used or exerted and growing stronger with regular exercise.
Jeff Joireman, Associate Professor of Marketing, 509-335-0191, joireman@wsu.edu
Media contact:
Robert Strenge, WSU News, 509-335-3583, rstrenge@wsu.edu