Studies on self-control suggest that recollecting past mistakes is a good way to avoid making them again. But researchers thought there might be more to the story.
To find out, they decided to test the nuances of recall—and discovered that focusing on past behaviors isn’t always a good idea.
“Be very careful when you ask anybody to dig up the past,” says Kelly Haws, associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University. “That can be a very ineffective way to change future behavior for the better.”
In the first of a series of experiments published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers divided subjects into two groups. They asked one group to remember self-control “successes” —say, buying shoes from the sales rack rather than shelling out for new Jimmy Choos. The other group was asked to remember examples of poor choices, or “failures.”
Then they added a twist—they wanted to see how the ease of recall affected self-control. To do this, they used a well-known method in cognitive psychology—they asked some subjects to remember more examples than others.
The method works because it’s generally easier to call up two past examples than 10. Therefore, the thinking goes, people asked to remember two instances of smart spending might think they make great choices, since the recall felt easy.
On the flip side, people asked to remember 10 examples of good financial decisions might doubt their self-control. “You start to use that difficulty you’re having as a cue for who you are and what you’re like,” Haws says.
Finally, Haws gave participants a budget, then asked them how much they would spend on an item they couldn’t afford—a pair of shoes, a handbag, or a video game.
Study participants asked to remember few instances of success, on the whole, spent within their allotted budgets. But those asked to remember more good examples exhibited poorer self-control—they tended to splurge on items they couldn’t afford.
The results highlight several interesting elements of the relationship between recall and self-control. Perhaps the most surprising is that searching through the past can negatively affect behavior, depending on the ease of recall, even when past examples are positive.
We are constantly rewriting the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—that’s what makes recall an unreliable tool for improvement, Haws says. Instead of dwelling on the past, a better strategy to positively change behavior might be to set goals for the future: Don’t buy the $700 boots because you want to go on that trip to Europe, or study instead of party to get a good grade on tomorrow’s test.
In short, if we want to have better self-control, Haws says, “Look forward. Don’t look back.”
The 2012 ACR/Sheth Foundation Dissertation Competition Grant and the Dean’s Small Research Grant fund at the University of Pittsburgh supported the work.