Depleted cognitive self-control: impact on ethical decisions

I have previously written about how self-control can be depleted, leading to impulsive actions that prioritise short-term, less-than-ideal gains. Some research suggested that this might be because people fail to put together a plan of action that would prevent the lapse of self-control occurring, and that self-control might be re-established if, when in a tempting situation involving a choice between two conflicting options, we take the time to think about our long-term goals and the specific details of how we want to achieve them.

A lapse of self-control can have undesirable consequences for the individual. Persistently valuing enjoyable but unhealthy foods rather than prioritising longer term dietary goals could result in all sorts of negative health outcomes; persistently valuing the thrill of an impulse purchase over a more considered, thoughtful approach to buying items can result in a lot of money wasted and a whole lot of space taken up by things you don’t want or need. But what about further consequences to impaired self-control? When your self-control is depleted, what sort of wider impact might that have?

When it comes to self-control and ethics, it looks like there might be a problem. Gino and colleagues (including Dan Ariely – a research psychologist and behavioural economist whose pop science books on decision-making you might have come across before) conducted a series of experiments to find out what effects depleted self-control would have on moral awareness and behaviour (“Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behaviour” in the journal Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that depleted self-control had consequences for behaviour and choices in a range of ethical situations – short-term, unethical choices with a quick pay-off were prioritised over longer-term, more ideal goals. You can imagine the potential magnitude of the consequences of that in the real world.

In one experiment, Gino and colleagues examined whether self-control depletion led research participants to cheat on a problem-solving task (they could cheat by overstating their performance, which would get them more money at the end of the task, so there was a financial incentive to cheat). Self-control was depleted by showing one group of participants a soundless video of a woman being interviewed, with irrelevant words appearing as subtitles at the bottom of the screen – these participants were instructed to focus on the woman’s face and ignore the words, which requires plenty of self-control (you can do the Stroop test to see just how difficult it can be to ignore written words and how much control you need to exert to ignore them). Another group, the control group, was shown the same video but weren’t given any instructions – they could look wherever they wanted on the screen. The results? 34% of participants in the self-control depletion group cheated by overstating their performance, whereas only 13.7% of participants in the control group cheated – a significant difference.

Subsequent experiments revealed that self-control depletion actually made participants less aware of ethical situations and ethics-related concepts – once self-control was worn down, the topic of ethics was kind of de-prioritised and placed at the back of the mind.

Still, in that initial experiment, only 34% of people cheated after being depleted in self-control. What could be an influencing factor in who does or doesn’t cheat when given the opportunity? A person’s individual sense of morality and ethics probably plays a role, and the researchers investigated this by using a questionnaire to assess how central a sense of ethics/morality was to each participant – how strongly their self-identity hinged on this sense of being a moral and ethical person.

Again, the findings are perhaps unsurprising. Individuals with a strong moral identity (ones who considered it important for themselves to feel that they were caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest and kind) didn’t cheat that much more when their self-control was depleted compared to when their self-control wasn’t depleted. People with low moral identity cheated much more after depletion relative to when they weren’t depleted.

It’s interesting to consider how this might apply to other ethical situations we might encounter in daily life. When, as consumers, we have the option to purchase something of ethically dubious provenance (for example, clothing from high street retailers who are known to have a poor track record in terms of ethical production lines or sustainable use of environmental resources), are we more likely to choose the less ethical option if our self-control has been worn down? The experiments conducted by Gino et al. demonstrated that self-control can be worn down in different, seemingly irrelevant ways (such as having to ignore the presentation of words, or having to write an essay that doesn’t contain certain letters of the alphabet) and still have an impact on ethical choices. So after a long day at work and exerting self-control in order to stay focused and productive, we’re all probably pretty cognitively depleted, and that might mean impaired ethical awareness and increased favour towards unethical options that offer swift pay-off. Gino and colleagues also demonstrated, in a final experiment, that resisting the temptation to cheat depletes self-control as well – so trying to prioritise an ethical choice might wear you down to the point where you make an unethical one. And this is complicated by the influential factor of identity – all these things may only be an issue for you in proportion to how important a particular ethical position or issue is to you and your identity.

It’s difficult to predict how generalisable the results of the Gino et al. study are to other ethical situations – cheating for monetary gain is one quite specific scenario, but there are plenty of other contexts and quandaries of an ethical or moral nature, and the stakes might be sufficiently different to change the effects of self-control depletion on moral/ethical choices (consider how complicated it might be to examine the effects of self-control depletion in a situation with ambiguous moral outcomes, such as the classic moral dilemma, the trolley problem). The main implication of this study’s findings, however, is that depleted self-control does seem to lead to prioritising short-term, unethical options that have quicker pay-off (such as receiving more money at the end of the experiment) over long-term, ethical options with less clearly defined pay-off (such as maintaining an ethical and fair approach in life and whatever satisfaction and benefits might be derived from that). Additionally considering the self-control depletion research I previously discussed, which found that lapses of self-control seem to be due to poor planning of responses to resolve the conflict between choices, a few recommendations might be made:

(1) Avoid having to make choices with an ethical component following an activity that might have depleted your self-control, e.g. if you aim to be an ethical consumer, try not to go shopping after a long day at work when you are likely to be cognitively depleted.

(2) If having to make that choice when you’re depleted is unavoidable (e.g. you have to purchase a birthday present for a friend, and the friend’s birthday is tomorrow, and you really want to give your friend the present tomorrow, meaning you have to buy something tonight directly after work, even though it has been a really tough day and you are probably very much cognitively depleted!), have a mental action plan of how you would achieve your long-term goal of being a more ethical consumer and consider those details when you are tempted to purchase an item that doesn’t fit well with your more ideal goals.

(3) Purposefully direct your attention to alternatives as part of your mental action plan. If you dwell too much on the less ideal item you’re thinking about purchasing, the effort to resist purchasing it could be enough to wear down your self-control until you cave in and buy that not-so-brilliant option anyway.

Controlling self-control: how self-control might be restored after you’ve used it up

Self-control – the ability to control our impulses and actions – is a critical factor every time we make a decision between conflicting goals. As consumers, we employ self-control in order to make informed, conscious choices rather than impulsive, spur-of-the-moment, often-regretted impulse purchases. We use self-control in our attempts to achieve higher goals, like when we endeavour to buy things that are closer to our ideal standards (e.g. ethically or sustainably produced items, or food that is healthy) rather than whatever provides the quickest and most impulsively gratifying pay-off (e.g. items that aren’t ethically produced or sustainable but are cheap or convenient, or food that is not healthy but is convenient and delicious). Self-control also seems like a dynamic and variable thing – we all know people we would consider to have particularly good or particularly poor self-control, but we also know that our own level of self-control can vary, maybe depending on what mood we’re in, how tired we are, who we’re with, where we are, whether the item we want to buy is full-price or on sale, or dozens of other factors.

So how does self-control work? It has been the focus of a huge amount of very interesting research, and over the years, a lot of work has been done to try to characterise how it changes in response to different contexts and circumstances. If I said “self-control is like a muscle – you need to use it to develop it,” that makes some kind of intuitive sense – it does seem like maybe the more you exercise your self-control, the better at it you might get. But what if I said “self-control is a finite resource – if you use it too much, you deplete it and don’t have enough”? That also makes some sort of intuitive sense – exerting that self-control takes effort (since it might involve suppressing emotions or strictly focusing your attention, which can be very mentally demanding) and effort can wear you down after a while. The research to date actually suggests that the latter analogy is the more accurate one, with self-control becoming diminished over time as it is exerted.

However, maybe we can still have some control over our self-control, as it were. Self-control might be a resource that gets depleted with use, but is there perhaps some way to mitigate the depletion? Is there a way to replenish the self-control more quickly than normal, or to prevent it from being run down as much?

To determine the answer to that question, it’s necessary to characterise self-control in a bit more detail. One theory proposes that self-control is composed of two stages: the recognition of the need for control, and the actual implementation of that control. When you give in to the temptation and go with an option that you know isn’t ideal, the cause of that lapse of self-control might have happened at either (or both) of those stages – you might not have recognised that the situation called for self-control and the option you chose wasn’t ideal in terms of your longer-term, more constructive goals, or you might have realised that but simply failed to do anything about it. To figure out if it’s possible to improve self-control, we need to figure out at which stage the lapse is occurring.

In neuroscientific terms, the two stages of self-control can be separated into two widely researched cognitive processes: the identification of a conflict between potential responses – the conflict stage – and the recruitment of the cognitive control needed to implement a resolution the conflict – the implementation stage. Different parts of the frontal cortex of the brain are responsible for these processes, which means that we could use brain imaging techniques to see if those different parts of the brain are activated during the different stages of enacting self-control. That is exactly what Hedgcock and colleagues did, as reported in a paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, getting their participants to perform a choice task while in an fMRI scanner. They found that when participants had their self-control depleted, activity in brain areas related to the implementation of cognitive control was diminished, compared to when participants had’t had their self-control depleted. However, depleting participants’ self-control had no effect on the activity in brain areas related to identifying conflict. This suggests that depleted self-control might be due to a depleted ability to summon up the cognitive control to do anything about the situation. So when you’re about to buy a chocolate bar instead of a banana as a snack, at some level your brain is probably doing a perfectly good job of going “this isn’t really in line with our long-term goals of being healthy, is it?” but you are then failing to summon up the capacity or motivation to suppress the desire for the chocolate bar, or to direct your attention to the banana and its health benefits, or to think closely about why it would be closer to your long-term goals to opt for the banana. You know it’s not the ideal choice, but you make it anyway.

Can we do anything about that? Hedgcock and colleagues tried to figure that out, introducing interventions that were designed to target the different stages of the self-control process. Participants initially provided some information about how strong or weak their preferences were for assorted healthy and unhealthy food items. After performing a cognitively demanding task in order to deplete their self-control, participants were randomly allocated to an intervention:

• In the conflict intervention, participants were told “… be mindful of the conflict between immediate desires and future health consequences of each option. Please write an example of this conflict below.” This was designed to target the conflict stage of self-control.
• Participants in the implementation intervention were instructed to “… be mindful of the behaviors that you will need to do in order to reach your health goals. Please write an example of these behaviors below.” This was designed to target the control implementation stage of self-control.
• Then of course there was a control group that received no intervention and were given no instructions (although in the interests of a more comparable control conditions, I think the researchers could have considered giving the control group a completely irrelevant, neutral task to write a brief response to).

Participants then indicated their preferences for the assorted healthy and unhealthy food items again. This allowed the researchers to assess whether any of the interventions had remediated the self-control depletion – less self-control would mean less healthy food preferences relative to the preferences indicated at the start of the experiment. If the conflict intervention or the implementation intervention worked at all, the preference towards unhealthy foods wouldn’t be as great as in the control condition.

The results: the implementation intervention significantly skewed participants’ preferences towards healthier food items relative to both the conflict intervention and the control condition, whereas preferences after the conflict intervention were not significantly different from the control condition. It seems that thinking about the implementation of efforts to achieve the more ideal goal might restore self-control to such an extent that achieving the more ideal goal actually becomes more likely.

Much more research needs to be done before we gain a thorough understanding of how self-control works, how it is depleted, and how it might be replenished, but the results of this study suggest that, on occasions when self-control needs to be put into action and choice needs to be made between conflicting options, it might pay to think about the behaviours that would need to be implemented to achieve the more ideal goal. Of course, it’s likely to be rather different in the real world compared to within the confines of an experiment – you probably won’t have researchers clearly and firmly instructing you to think about those behaviours carefully and write about them. To do that on your own would probably require (surprise surprise) extra self-control. But it might be of value to have plans and strategies for some of those awkward decision-making occasions that you can think likely to occur in your life, from not so brilliant dietary choices to impulse purchases at the shops, and anything where the short-term and long-term pay-offs are obstinately competing against each other to woo you.

Ownership, loss aversion, the endowment effect, and lava lamps

Do you ever see things for sale on eBay with prices that seem astonishingly unrealistic? I get daily emails of newly listed items containing my saved search terms and sometimes the prices are just ridiculously optimistic. Not only that, but the items turn up again and again and again, re-listed and re-listed and re-listed, often at the same price. I know that some of the items will be from consignment sellers who have probably agreed with a client on a set price and to re-list indefinitely until the item sells, but a lot of the listings are just from individuals clearing out their homes and offloading the things they don’t want any more. Just sometimes at prices so high that the items never sell.

What might be responsible for some of these crazy prices is the endowment effect, a psychological phenomenon in which people typically demand a lot more in order to relinquish an item they already own than they would be willing to pay for the item if they didn’t already own it.

In the classic study of the endowment effect by Daniel Kahneman and colleagues, research participants were given a mug and were then offered the opportunity to sell it or to trade it for something of equal monetary value. However, once the participants were given ownership of the mug and felt like it was theirs, they typically expected twice as much money in order to be willing to part with it than they were willing to pay for the mug when they didn’t own it. So when they don’t own the mug, maybe they think it’s worth $5, but when they do own the mug, they expect someone to pay them $10 for it.

One explanation for the endowment effect is loss aversion – owners of items expect the pain of relinquishing the items to be greater than the enjoyment of acquiring the items, so they need extra financial compensation to soften the blow of parting with the item. However, an alternative explanation is related simply to ownership and the possibility that owners might associate the items with themselves, so they are reluctant to part with an item because of this personal connection – not necessarily because they expect to feel any pain from the loss.

Morewedge and colleagues investigated the endowment effect in terms of the loss aversion account versus the ownership account, to see which was more likely to be the real explanation. The problem, of course, is the fact that sellers are usually owners, so even if you just want to look at whether loss aversion occurs when someone considers selling an item, you’re kind of incidentally looking at ownership to some extent too. You need to add some extra factors in to get a clear picture of what’s going on.

Firstly, what if you create a new type of person – someone who’s a buyer but also an owner? Does such a person, i.e. one who is selling a mug but also happens to own another identical mug that they aren’t selling, behave more like a owner-seller (because they are an owner too) or more like a non-owning-buyer (because they are a buyer as well)? The researchers found that owning a mug actually resulted in buyers valuing the mug as much as sellers, which suggests that the high value that sellers place on the mug isn’t because of loss aversion – for instance, a seller might think a mug is worth $10, but someone who wants to buy that mug and already owns an identical mug also thinks the mug is worth $10. It appears to be the ownership that increases the mug’s perceived value; it can’t be loss aversion, since the buyer isn’t losing the mug.

Another clever way to tease apart the issue of loss aversion vs. ownership is to introduce additional parties – brokers who do the bargaining and dealing on behalf of the buyers and sellers. The researchers got some of the research participants to act as brokers to do a deal (on mugs again) on behalf of clients, so these brokers were buying or selling a mug without owning it. The researchers also gave some of the brokers identical mugs to the ones they had to buy or sell, so some brokers were buying or selling a mug they didn’t own but they also happened to own an identical mug. If the loss aversion account of the endowment effect is true, then sellers’ brokers should value the mugs more than buyers’ brokers, since sellers’ brokers will see their client’s sale as a loss and buyers’ brokers will see their client’s sale as a gain. However, if the ownership account is true, then buyers’ brokers and sellers’ brokers should value the mug more when they themselves own identical mugs to the one being bought/sold, compared to if the brokers don’t themselves own identical mugs.

The results showed that, again, owning the mug was the key factor here, and that buyers’ and sellers’ brokers valued the mug that they were buying or selling more if they themselves owned an identical mug. Again, it looks like ownership is the key factor in how valued an item is, rather than loss aversion. So maybe when those items turn up on eBay with crazy prices attached, what we’re seeing is the price for someone to be willing to relinquish something they connect with themselves. You might say it’s a bit like severing a tiny part of their identity, hence the premium price placed on the act.

Also, I just want to congratulate the study’s authors for getting what is essentially an ode to lava lamps into their paper, questioning the very nature of the human connection to lava lamps in language so imbued with poetic imagery and faint melancholy:

“Because the people who own lava lamps demand more to give them up than the people who do not own lava lamps will pay to get them, deals go unmade and storage lockers remain filled with lava lamps that are destined never again to glow. [...] We do not know if people store their lava lamps because parting with them is such sweet sorrow, but we do know that they store them because they like them and that they like them because they’re theirs.”

The value of ethical appearances

Following up to my previous post, it’s important to consider what motivates a brand or company to want to be perceived by consumers as ethical. As nicely summed up in this paper, “morality has become an important factor for corporate brands, and an increasing number of companies are using the ethical dimension as a strategic element in terms of defining and promoting their brands”. You might think that it ultimately might not matter how ethical a company is or seems, since consumers are happy to say they want to buy ethically produced items but then don’t actually do so in practice. In light of that, you might think that a company that acts ethically might be choosing to act ethically because they really do wish to act ethically. Some [likely smaller] companies probably do conduct their business according to that sentiment (or were even founded with that sentiment in mind). But enormous international companies with shareholders to please and profits to maintain and extensive expansions to undertake? It’s probably going to be a bit more complicated.

Such a company might be motivated to pursue more ethical practices because it actually works out cheaper for them, which could be considered a not particularly virtuous win/win situation. For example, a company that decreases its energy costs per square metre of store space is decreasing its carbon footprint per square metre of store space (which, on the face of it, seems ethical), but more efficient energy measures also mean decreased energy consumption and decreased energy costs. So it might not be an entirely altruistic effort with only the good of the planet in mind, but ultimately some good comes of it.

But another more subtle factor to consider is what such a company stands to gain from appearing ethical to consumers (whether it’s through genuinely engaging in ethical practices or only making superficial efforts to seem ethical, or a mixture of both). What’s in it for the company?

Being perceived as ethical increases brand loyalty

A company that successfully portrays itself as being sustainable engenders increased brand trust and more positive brand affect (i.e. consumers’ feelings towards the brand), and these result in greater brand loyalty. Increasing these things likely results in increased patronage and increased profits. Quoting from the paper ‘Does Having an Ethical Brand Matter? The Influence of Consumer Perceived Ethicality on Trust, Affect and Loyalty’:

“…this research sheds light on one of the main concerns of marketing managers worldwide: do investments in CSR [corporate social responsibility] and ethics pay off at the corporate level? Of course, brands should behave ethically independently of the potential impact of such behavior on the bottom line. Moreover, in a connected world that has made brands more transparent, truly ethical behavior will be necessary to succeed in any marketplace. However, the findings of this research suggest that CPE [consumer perceived ethicality] positively impacts the product brand loyalty, and so can help facilitate customer retention, secure future purchases, and foster recommendation.”

So securing brand loyalty by being (or seeming) ethical pays off.

Consumers do pay attention to unethical behaviour

Despite that gap between ethical purchasing intentions and actual purchasing behaviour, consumers do have a reasonably complex awareness of potential ethical issues that might be associated with brands. As reported in the paper ‘Exploring origins of ethical company/brand perceptions — A consumer perspective of corporate ethics’, surveyed participants thought of issues in 36 different sub-categories that could describe possible ways that a company could act that would affect its ethical image: pollution, exploitation of labour, supporting questionable political regimes, involvement with charities, animal protection, pushing competitors out of business, fair trade involvement, corruption/bribery, sustainable farming, corporate travel policies and intellectual rights, among others. Given that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of these issues, brands need to make efforts to avoid being seen as unethical, as “often, unethical perceptions are at the root of a faltering company/brand image and reputation, with a potentially detrimental effect on consumer attitudes and purchase behavior following in its wake”. Especially since other research suggests that as consumer ethical awareness increases, that gap between purchase intentions and purchase behaviour will close.

Modelling the data shows that sustainable efforts improve profits

Depending on other assorted factors (such as customer satisfaction and brand innovativeness), sustainability efforts could increase profits. As reported in the paper ‘Corporate social responsibility, customer satisfaction, and market value’:

“Our finding that CSR [corporate social responsibility] contributes positively to market value suggests that managers can obtain competitive advantages and reap more financial benefits by investing in CSR. To be more specific, we calculated that for a typical company in our sample with an average market value of approximately $48 billion, one unit increase of CSR ratings would result in approximately $17 million more profits on average in subsequent years, a substantial increase of financial return”

In general, this is all something to keep in mind when considering your perception of a company that is positioning itself as ethical. It’s important to critically evaluate the information that is presented by a company about its ethical position. This is even more important given what I’ve said above because companies would have a vested interest in seeming ethical rather than being ethical, since successfully creating an image of being ethical could have financial benefits. You need to be able to critically evaluate the information that’s presented if you’re going to know whether a particular “ethical” initiative is a genuine effort or just lip service, otherwise you can’t assemble a clear idea of your position on a company nor make an informed decision regarding whether to be one of its customers.