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5 Tips on Holiday Shopping from Social Psychologists

The holiday shopping (and eating) season is upon us but before you run out to buy gifts, you may want to take a cue from social psychologists: Following some simple tips for gift giving could help your wallet, your energy levels, and your satisfaction with the holiday season.
  1. Don't go shopping after making a lot of other decisions -- When we make a lot of decisions, our self control weakens and our desires strengthen, according to research by Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, and others. Their experiments on so-called "ego depletion” show that as people make decisions, their willpower becomes so eroded that they feel desires and cravings more strongly. The more people try to resist temptations, the stronger they crave subsequent ones – whether to keep eating cookies or to open a gift. Renovating your kitchen? Wait until after choosing your countertops before going out to buy holiday gifts.
  2. Make a list and pass on customization -- Vohs and others similarly found that people's willpower becomes drained when they are faced with too many options in making a single purchase. An experiment looking at buying a custom computer showed that people who were given the fewest options had the most willpower. Other experiments have shown that the greater the ego depletion, the more susceptible people become to marketing. So pace yourself and make a list – the fewer choices you have to make in the moment, the more willpower you will have to make the right decisions. Passing up on temptations altogether may have an added benefit – greater general life satisfaction, according to research by Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and others.
  3. Get a snack – glucose boost – or better yet bring one with you -- The fastest way to refill your willpower may be to eat something, according to social psychologists. Research by Matthew Gailliot at Florida State University, Baumeister, and others shows that administering glucose can eliminate some of the effects of ego depletion. In their experiments, they found that when participants drank sugar-sweetened drinks (glucose) versus artificially-sweetened ones, they had more self-control. So bring some cheese and crackers or fruit with you on your next outing.
  4. Take a breather – procrastinate -- Instead of either succumbing to an impulse purchase or giving up entirely, see if you can delay the decision until another day. Research by Vanessa Patrick of the University of Houston and Nicole Mead of the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics show that procrastination may facilitate self-control in the face of temptation. See a holiday cookie in the breakroom, just tell yourself you can wait until later and you may end up consuming less the same goes for that tempting new TV in the window.
  5. Consider a charitable donation as a gift -- A growing body of research suggests that giving to others, whether through monetary donations, volunteer work, or social support, can benefit both the recipient and the giver. Not only does giving to others give you personal satisfaction but it also has positive physiological effects: Research led by Stephanie Brown at the University of Michigan suggests that helping people close to you increases levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Other research by Lara Aknin of the University of British Columbia shows that giving to others improves job satisfaction and team performance. Her team found that randomly assigning individuals to spend on others rather than on themselves improved team performance in two very different settings: a sales teams in Belgium and dodgeball teams in Canada.
Learn more about this research and more at the SPSP annual meeting Jan. 26-28, 2012 in San Diego, CA. A special press briefing "Desires and cravings: food, money, status, sex” will take place Friday, Jan. 27 at 2:30 p.m. Register for the meeting now.
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