Busyness is often thought of as a modern day affliction, but according to new research from the global business school INSEAD, it can also help you delay gratification and make decisions that benefit you in the longer-term
“Every day, we make many decisions that involve choosing between our immediate and future well-being. For instance, do we go to the gym after work, or do we just go home to relax in front of the television? Do we save money for retirement, or do we splurge on a trip? Do we eat fruit or cake for dessert? When we perceive ourselves to be busy, it boosts our self-esteem, tipping the balance in favour of the more virtuous choice,” said Amitava Chattopadhyay, Professor of Marketing at INSEAD.
In a new paper, Chattopadhyay and his co-authors show that the mere perception of self as a busy person, or what they call a busy mindset, is a “badge of honour” that can be leveraged to promote better self-control. Their paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research.
This paper shows there can be a flip side to being busy. While people who feel under significant time pressure tend to get anxious and make hedonic decisions, those who simply think of themselves as busy tend to make virtuous choices as a result of their perceived self-importance.
Busyness as a way to boost self-esteem
Across a series of studies, the researchers activated the busy mindset of participants through various means. Sometimes they exposed them to messaging that subtly suggested that they were busy individuals. In other experiments, they asked participants to write what had been keeping them busy recently.
Participants were then asked to make decisions in different self-control domains related to food, exercise or retirement savings, for example. Participants who had been reminded of their busy lifestyle were consistently more inclined than control participants to make virtuous decisions.
Importantly, the studies proved that a heightened sense of self-importance was the key reason behind the increase in self-control. “When we temporarily dampened the sense of self-importance of participants who otherwise felt busy, the self-control effect vanished,” said Chattopadhyay.
Implications for marketing and policymaking
It is common for marketers to use busyness as a campaign concept, as many consumers can relate to it. However, if the advertised product is an indulgent one – such as fast food – the campaign could backfire. “Busyness appeals should be more effective for products that require people to assert self-control, as would be the case for a gym chain, for example,” said Chattopadhyay.
In addition, these findings could find societal applications in the spheres of health promotion or food waste reduction. Policymakers may want to consider ways to activate a busy mindset as a nudge to increase relevant self-control behaviours in the population.