Perceived Busyness and Consumer Decision Making

WADHWA, Monica | KIM, Christine | CHATTOPADHYAY, Amitava

Famous economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted that by 2028, living conditions would improve so much that we would only have to work three to four hours a day. However, today, an increasing number of people feel busier than ever. Consequently, many advertisements empathize with consumers’ busy lifestyles. Yet, little is known about how the subjective perception of one’s self as being busy—induced by exposure to busyness-related media cues—impacts consumer decision making.

As such, a recent study by J. Christine Kim, Monica Wadhwa, and Amitava Chattopadhyay examines the effect of a busy self-concept on consumers’ self-view and decisions. Existing research shows that time pressure, which is a stressful state of lacking time and being concerned for task completion often results in lapses of self-control. That is, if Sandy is only half way through a report she needs to complete by 5pm today, she is likely to feel stressed which might lead her to choose a chocolate bar over an apple for her snack. But what would happen to Sandy’s decision if she is occupied with many tasks to do today, but not under time stress for impending deadlines? This study focuses on such condition and examines how merely perceiving one’s self as busy, without actually being pressured for time, impacts the self.

Kim and her colleagues demonstrate that seeing oneself as busy can make him/her feel like an important and indispensable person and bolsters one’s sense of self. They propose that perhaps “busyness is a state of mind that people prefer to be in… it makes us feel as though every moment of our lives matters”. Kim also commented that busy lifestyle may be one source of meaning in life for modern consumers and that’s why some people choose to be busy. The authors also demonstrate the consequence of this bolstered sense of self on decisions involving self-control dilemmas, that is choosing between immediate gratification and delayed long-term benefits. Across seven studies—using varied means to activate busy self-concept and various ways to measure self-control behaviours—the authors show that a busy self-concept leads to a bolstered sense of self, which in turn helps individuals to make decisions more in line with their long-term goals and  facilitates their self-control behaviours.  

The studies also demonstrate the boundary condition of when this busy effect is attenuated. First, the busy effect is attenuated among those who believe that busyness is not good. That is, the perception that one is busy enhances self-importance and facilitates self-control only to the degree that one believes that being busy is good. Second, the busy effect is attenuated when the time pressure is high. When the time pressure is high, the negative effect of time pressure on self-control wipes out the positive effect of busyness.  This finding raises the concern that care should be taken when reaching any conclusions based purely on time pressure, since existing research on time pressure does not take into account how the subjective perception of busyness impacts behaviours.

The study has important managerial implications for both marketers and policy makers. First, it is assumed that since consumers are busy, busy appeals should make the product more relevant and thus more favourable. However, the study shows that busy marketing appeals could be detrimental for brands that are deemed indulgent, but profitable for those seen as healthy. Second, the findings suggest that activating a busy mindset might be an easier and more effective means of facilitating self-control behaviour. This is contrary to what is commonly believed, since busyness is often seen as being bad for one’s health. In other words, it could have a positive rather than a negative impact on well-being and could be used to encourage a healthier lifestyle for consumers.

KIM, Christine

Assistant Professor