Unsure What the Future Will Bring? You May Overindulge: Uncertainty Increases the Appeal of Wants over Shoulds

58 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2009 Last revised: 8 May 2012

Katherine L. Milkman

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School

Date Written: July 9, 2011

Abstract

This paper examines the effect of uncertainty about the future on whether individuals select want options (e.g., junk foods, lowbrow films) or instead exert self-control and select should options (e.g., healthy foods, highbrow films). As predicted by the ego-depletion literature, which suggests that self-control resembles an exhaustible muscle, uncertainty about what the future may bring reduces self-control resources and increases individuals’ tendency to favor want options over should options. These results persist both when real uncertainty is induced and when the salience of naturally-arising uncertainty is heightened. Further, these results hold even when individuals are able to make choices contingent upon the outcomes of uncertain events. Overall, this work suggests that reducing uncertainty in a decision maker’s environment may have a “halo effect”, leading to less impulsive choices.

Keywords: Want/Should Conflict, Self-Control, Uncertainty, Ego Depletion, Disjunction Effect

Suggested Citation

Milkman, Katherine L., Unsure What the Future Will Bring? You May Overindulge: Uncertainty Increases the Appeal of Wants over Shoulds (July 9, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1393535 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1393535

Katherine L. Milkman (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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