Hacking Willpower: The Psychology of Consumer Behaviour

    Kyle Murray, recipient of the 2016 Killam Professorship, studies what makes us tick — and how that affects the way we eat, work, and spend

    By Mike Kendrick on June 14, 2016

    Go ahead, eat that last piece of cake. It’s okay to ignore the diet, just this once, right? As you weigh the costs and benefits of choices like these, it may seem like you’re completely in control of the decision. But the research of an award-winning Alberta School of Business professor suggests that there’s a lot more behind our power to resist the urge to indulge.

    This month, Kyle Murray was awarded one of 2016’s Killam Professorships as recognition of his outstanding research in the field of behavioural psychology and consumer decision-making. His work has become an industry standard in the way we understand consumer habits and how that knowledge can be applied to better leverage business strategies.

    Currently serving as Director of Retailing at the University of Alberta School of Business, Murray’s work skews theoretical and aims to develop an understanding of the way that people behave. He says his approach is cognitive, exploring which factors influence the decisions we make based on the options we’re given and how those notions fit into existing models of behavioural psychology.

    "We don't really have an overall and unified theory of how people think. Instead, what we try to do is understand in a particular context why do people make the choices they do, or how do they come up with the evaluations or judgments that they come up with?"

    According to Murray, our decision-making is influenced by factors beyond our own conscious choices and is more subject to external influence that we may take for granted. Our daily habits lay a foundation for the smaller choices we make on a subconscious level and it can be difficult to break away from day-to-day routine.

    Environment is one significant factor based on how it affects our energy levels. Sunny weather tends to make people more energetic and therefore more motivated, whereas cloudy days can make it difficult to tackle our to-do lists.

    “[Energy] also affects things like how much willpower we have and whether or not we can resist eating that dessert or drinking that beer, or whatever it may be,” says Murray. “We've looked at how energy plays a role in the choices we make and how when you have less energy, you make different choices than the choices when you're more energized."

    Successful retailers can leverage this knowledge in the design of their stores and in turn, manipulate how customers behave while shopping. Bright and lively stores tend to make consumers more likely to spend — whether they need to or not — while sterile environments can have the opposite effect, turning customers away. Murray cites Target, the retail giant who in 2015 closed all of its Canadian stores after a monumental failure of its expansion strategy. In its last few months, most locations were marked by empty shelves and skeleton crews, creating an “eerie” environment that no doubt accelerated its demise.

    But external factors are only part of the equation and Murray has found that our ability to exert self-control is just as reliant on our bodies as our minds. Prevailing theories suggest that willpower is limited and as we expend it over the course of the day, it becomes increasingly difficult to make choices that are beneficial in the long term. But Murray’s research has revealed that, when properly motivated, we can draw on extra strength to overcome momentary weakness — so long as we’re reminded of the outcome of our goals.

    "What's even more surprising is that it's physiological,” he explains. “It looks like people's heart rates increase — if you're trying to diet and we give you some chocolate and some information about the chocolate, people who are trying to diet, their heart rates will increase as they try to resist eating the chocolate. Their pupils will dilate. They'll have a physiological response that's consistent with their goals to try and make themselves stronger."

    In a series of studies conducted by Murray and his colleagues, they found that motivation can be triggered by simply changing how existing information is presented. Participants were offered chocolate packaged with labelling that was slightly different: some bars used red coloured coding to highlight “unhealthy” nutritional information, while some used green to highlight “healthier” ingredients. Out of those who were consciously trying to diet, Murray’s team found that people were much more willing to eat the green-coded chocolate and showed restraint with the labels that reminded them of their nutritional choices.

    "I think it's true that we can help consumers make better decisions with really simple changes — decisions that are more consistent with their own goals," says Murray.

    "Without taking away choice, we can nudge people towards choices that are better for them based on their own goals. You don't take away the chocolate, you don't change the information that's on the label, you just highlight what's important."

    Murray is honoured be among this year’s list of Killam Professors and have his work recognized. The title is awarded annually to less than 10 UAlberta faculty members and recognizes outstanding research in the social sciences and humanities. The Professorships are part of The Killam Trusts, established in 1965 from the estate of Dorothy and Izaak Walton Killam, which provides annual funding to five Canadian universities and intended “to help in the building of Canada's future by encouraging advanced study.” Murray is only the second professor from the School of Business to receive the honour, alongside marketing professor Gerald Häubl in 2014.