THE BLOG

Gratitude: Good for Your Wallet and Your Soul

03/25/2015 09:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015

Enticements to consumerism define our society like never before. From our tablets, to our email, to our smartphones, the next advertisement and the next purchase are only a click away. The result? The impulse buy -- the cash cow of many a business strategy -- is more tempting than ever, leading many to experience both increasing debt and buyers' remorse.

As a psychologist who studies decision making, I'm acutely aware that marketers know how the mind works, and they aren't hesitant to use that knowledge to stoke consumers' desires and lessen their self-control. Tactics emphasizing scarcity ("only 10 televisions at this price in stock"), delayed cost ("0 percent interest until 2016") and status ("be among the first to get the next "it" product) are employed to great effect.

Such tactics prey on what is arguably one of the mind's greatest potential vulnerabilities: the innate human preference for rapid reward, or immediate gratification. Most people, for example, would opt to receive $20 today rather than $100 in a year, even though, logically speaking, an investment guaranteed to quintuple your money in 12 months is hard to beat.

This phenomenon, known as temporal discounting, often plays a central role in purchasing decisions of the impulse-buying type. To the extent that retailers can increase your impatience for reward or otherwise evoke a sense of urgency in you, your belief that a pleasurable expenditure is worthwhile increases, while the rewards of saving and investing that money appear more and more distant.

What can we, as potential consumers, do? What can help us resist?

While it's true that we all have a proclivity for immediate gratification, we are also all capable of self-control. The real question is, how do we ensure that we exercise it?

A natural suggestion is to rely on willpower. But when it comes to shopping, that is often easier said than done. Research has shown that willpower tends to be limited in nature. Each successful exercise of it actually increases the likelihood of subsequent failure if temptations come in quick succession (as they do, for instance, on Amazon or in shopping malls). Distraction, too, has been recommended, but it's difficult to distract yourself when advertisements are continually bombarding your attention.

So rather than try to override your poor-decision-making impulses, a better strategy might be to try to change them. And recent research suggests that an effective way to do that is by cultivating the emotion of gratitude.

Psychologists have long known that emotions like anger and fear can alter decisions (often for the worse), but until recently, we haven't focused on positive ones. Gratitude, viewed from a cost-benefit perspective, stresses the long-term value of short-term sacrifice (e.g., If I'm grateful to you, I'll work hard to repay a favor and thereby ensure you'll help me again in the future). Consequently, my colleagues and I suspected that gratitude might also enhance patience and self-control.

To find out, we asked 75 individuals to recall and describe in writing one of three events: a time they felt grateful, a time they felt amused, or a typical day. We next asked them 27 questions of the form "Would you rather have $X now or $Y in Z days?" where Y was always greater than X, and Z varied from days to months. To make the stakes palpable, we sometimes paid actual money. For example, if someone said he'd rather have $55 now as opposed to $75 in 61 days, we handed him the cash. If, instead, he opted for the $75, we mailed him a check at that time.

Answers to these questions allowed us to calculate annual discount factors for each person, which reflect how much a given amount to be received in one year is valued relative to the same amount received immediately. As we reported in an article in Psychological Science last year, those feeling neutral (the ones who described their daily routine) demonstrated the usual preference for immediate reward: On average, they viewed receiving $17 now as equivalent to getting $100 in a year. Those feeling happy and amused were similar: They would sacrifice $100 in a year for $18 in the moment.

But those feeling grateful showed almost double the financial patience. They required $30 in the moment to forego the $100 reward a year from now. What's more, the amount of patience people possessed was directly tied to how grateful they felt.

What these findings show is that gratitude can temporarily enhance self-control by decreasing desires for immediate gratification. Whereas feeling happy doesn't do much to increase patience, feeling grateful does.

So the next time you're looking to avoid falling prey to an impulse buy, take time to count your blessings. You may find that the easiest way to thwart retailers' enticements as you peruse the aisles, virtual or real, isn't to try to resist what you want; it's, as the age-old wisdom says, to be thankful for what you have.

*Adapted from the author's opinion piece in The New York Times entitled: Resisting The Impulse Buy.