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Spending Smart: Self-control, Smells and Spending

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By Gregory Karp

Ads containing olfactory imagery that encourage consumers to imagine an odor—what researchers call “smellizing”—can help sell food by making consumers salivate and consume the item in greater quantities, the study found.

“Consumers who engage in olfactory imagery may virtually re-experience events from the past more vividly, thus enhancing the appeal of products or services under consideration for purchase,” the authors wrote.

It only works when an image of the object associated with emitting the odor is present, not when just asking consumers to imagine the odor. So a radio ad prompting listeners to imagine the smell of a breakfast muffin might not help a marketer.

Perhaps the lesson for food marketers is to buy ads that use odor cues. They could be worth every scent.

—Self-control sweepstakes. The simple act of buying a lottery ticket—or even thinking about buying one—can trigger materialistic thoughts, which cause consumers to lose self-control, Kim found in the study, “Situational Materialism: How Entering Lotteries May Undermine Self-Control.”

In one study, researchers instructed participants to buy a lottery ticket with a jackpot of $1 million. A second group of consumers did not. Consumers who bought a lottery ticket had more materialistic thoughts and showed stronger preferences for a small, immediate reward—the opposite of delayed gratification, which is so important in many sound money decisions.

“Because people, upon entering a lottery, tend to think about specific purchases and a rush of pleasurable thoughts accompanies them—for example, ‘I would buy a red BMW Z4 convertible’—these thoughts appear to crowd out other thoughts related to the downsides of spending or more prudent ways the money might be used,” Kim wrote.

—Materialism vs. loneliness. “It is widely believed that there is a vicious cycle in which loneliness leads to materialism and materialism, in turn, contributes to loneliness,” writes author Rik Pieters of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

But not so fast, he says. Materialism may not entirely deserve its bad reputation.

Loneliness contributes more to materialism than the other way around, Pieters found after studying more than 2,500 consumers over six years.

It’s true that loneliness increased over time for consumers who valued material possessions as a measure of success or a type of “happiness medicine.” But loneliness decreased for those who sought possessions just for the sheer joy and fun of consuming, he found.

The Marshmallow Test:

Perhaps the most famous studies about self-control were experiments by then-Stanford University psychology professor Walter Mischel in the 1960s.

Pre-school children were told they would be left alone in a room with a single treat, sometimes a marshmallow. When the adult researcher left the room, the child was free to eat the treat. The child was told, however, that if he or she resisted the temptation and did not eat the marshmallow until the researcher returned to the room about 15 minutes later, they would get two marshmallows.

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