Tracy Cheung: "Turning vice into virtue - when low self-control states facilitate goal-oriented behaviours"

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Tracy Cheung: "Turning vice into virtue - when low self-control states facilitate goal-oriented behaviours"

On May 12, 2017 Tracy Cheung successfully defended the PhD thesis entitled "Turning vice into virtue - when low self-control states facilitate goal-oriented behaviours" at Utrecht University.

Prof. Dr. Denise de Ridder

Dr. Floor Kroese
Dr. Marieke Adriaanse


Despite having good intentions, people often fail to exercise self-control to act in line with their long-term goals. This is not surprising seeing that even mundane circumstances such as ego-depletion, being mentally distracted, and hunger could all hamper self-control performance. Considering these circumstances are inevitably part of daily life, the current dissertation aimed to gain a deeper understanding of low self-control states and how they affect performance. Critically, we worked with, rather than against, states of low self-control by exploring strategies that capitalized on decision-making processes prominent in these situations to promote goal-oriented behaviours.
The first part of the dissertation assessed the role of motivation underlying self-control performance. We found that people in high self-control states exhibited greater approach motivation towards goal-oriented (e.g., healthy food) than reward-oriented stimuli (e.g., unhealthy food), whereas those in low self-control due to ego-depletion or high cognitive load had similar approach motivation towards both options. We inferred the lack of distinction in motivation towards a virtue vs. vice in low self-control states might contribute to individuals´ increased susceptibility to environmental influences.
Correspondingly, the second part of the dissertation investigated the influence of environmental cues to promote goal-oriented behaviours for individuals in low self-control states. Based on the premise that low self-control states increase the propensity to rely on System I processing that is quick, automatic, and highly susceptible to environmental influences, we predicted that these circumstances would predispose individuals to following heuristics to expedite decision-making. We tested the hypothesis that individuals in states of low self-control due to ego-depletion or hunger would favour more goal-oriented outcomes if they were promoted by suitable heuristics installed in the environment. In line with predictions, our findings demonstrated that ego-depleted people benefitted from following scarcity heuristics, namely the demand (vs. supply) scarcity, to favour more virtuous (e.g., healthy food, utilitarian products) than vice options (unhealthy food, hedonic products). We generalized these results by showing that hungry people selected more healthy food choices when there was a social proof heuristic promoting them.
The last part of the dissertation tested the applicability of heuristics as a type of nudging intervention in real-life contexts where people were not inclined to exert self-control. In a field study conducted at a take-away food vendor, we found that an accessibility nudge increased the sales of fruits, whereas the social proof nudge and salience nudge had limited effectiveness in promoting their respective healthy products assumedly due to strong existing consumer preferences. Moreover, we found that presenting a disclosure message to increase the transparency of the nudge´s intended purpose did not influence its effectiveness. Finally, semi-structured interviews revealed that consumers are generally receptive to nudging interventions, especially when oriented towards promoting healthy eating, given that they are designed and implemented by knowledgeable experts and trustworthy authority that upheld consumer and societal interests.

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