Over the recent few years, the popular press and academic research alike have lamented that people are indulging in excessive consumption, in terms of both eating and spending behaviors. The excessive degrees of these behaviors have resulted in crises in health (with obesity becoming an epidemic) and on the economic front (with household savings plummeting to record lows). Easy access to large food portions is often blamed for the obesity epidemic, and the easy availability of credit is typically blamed for the spending problem.
The authors provide a prescriptive recommendation to address the issue of excessive consumption. They study situations in which consumers aim to regulate consumption but are sometimes unable to do so. Furthermore, they study situations in which these consumers have access to a certain quantity of a resource (a quantity of food or a sum of money) and compare situations in which the resource is available as an aggregate quantity to situations in which the resource is partitioned into smaller quantities. For example, a cash payment of $500 might be presented in one envelope or as five separate envelopes each containing $100. Likewise, 20 cookies might be packaged all together in a box or in four subcontainers with five cookies in each.
Specifically, the authors ask the following specific questions: First, holding the quantity constant, does the pattern of consumption differ when the resource is aggregated versus partitioned? Across four studies involving food and money, they show that partitioning the resource results in reduced quantity or rate of consumption. Second, why do partitions affect consumption? The authors suggest that when consumers encounter a partition (e.g., finish one bag of popcorn), their decision making moves from being automatic to more deliberative. Put differently, eating the next kernel of popcorn from an open bucket is typically a thoughtless process, and consumers might not think about the decision. However, a small transaction cost (e.g., opening a fresh bag of popcorn) draws attention to the decision, and the resultant deliberation results in consumers deciding to stop or postpone consumption.
The authors test their predictions in a series of four studies. In Study 1, they demonstrate the effect of partitioning on chocolate consumption, and in Study 2, they replicate these effects in the domain of gambling (with tokens presented in aggregate or partitioned form). In Study 3, they use process measures to illustrate the effect of partitioning on decision making (in particular, more accurate recall and longer decision times). Importantly, the effect of partitioning weakens when consumers are not trying to regulate the consumption activity (Studies 1 and 3). In Study 4, they examine the possibility that the partition could, over time, become part of the automatic consumption ritual. They show that frequently changing the nature of partitions, rather than keeping them unchanged, increases their effectiveness in controlling consumption. These results suggest important implications for behaviors that consumers should follow but find it difficult to do so. Specifically, drawing attention to consumption through partitions encourages control, especially by consumers who are trying to constrain consumption.
Amar Cheema is an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. His research interests include consumers’ spending and self-control decisions, evaluations of prices and promotions, and auction behavior. His research on these topics has been published (or is forthcoming) in Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Marketing Science, Journal of Consumer Psychology, and Marketing Letters.
Dilip Soman is the Corus Chair in Strategy and Professor of Marketing in the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. His research interests lie in the area of human judgment and decision making. His work has appeared in several journals and book chapters.
J Marketing Research, Volume 45, Number 6, December 2008
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