By  on July 9, 2008

The Rx for wealthy consumers in difficult economic times? Ignore those pangs of guilt, wastefulness and irresponsibility. Go ahead and indulge.

It's no joke, said Anat Heinan, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard University, who has discovered that though even the rich experience a sense of guilt after making some pricy purchases, passing up indulgences can be worse. Too much self-control stirs more lasting feelings of discontent — disappointment over what might have been missed.

"Guilt is intense right after we buy a gorgeous, expensive dress or a piece of gourmet chocolate cake," Heinan, author with Ran Kivetz, of "When Virtue Is a Vice," published in the July-August 2008 Harvard Business Review, said in an interview.

Although feelings of guilt over indulgences are deeply rooted in the country's Protestant work ethic, practical sensibilities and historic tendency to save, they tend to be short lived, Heinan noted. "Over time, those who had indulged felt less and less guilty about their choices," she and Kivetz wrote, "whereas those who had been dutiful experienced a growing sense of having missed out on the pleasures of life."

One way marketers could counteract "excessive farsightedness," Heinan said, is by playing to people's disposition to value memories. Campaigns that have tried to do so include those for the MGM Grand in Las Vegas ("Resist the temptation to resist the temptation"), the Jersey Shore ("Build tomorrow's memories") and "The Lion King" ("See it now, remember it forever"). The Northern Trust financial services firm has gotten into the act as well, advertising its wealth experts as it encourages customers to lead a well-balanced life. It illustrates the idea with a contentment index weighted more heavily toward memories than investments.

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