Conflicting Goals Could Mean More Money

Fuqua professor explores why harried consumers spend more.
July 28, 2015

Marketers have long known that when consumers are in a hurry, they’re more likely to spend a little more for a product they want or need. Jordan Etkin, Fuqua assistant professor of marketing, set out to discover what’s behind this phenomenon and whether it also applies to situations in which there’s no actual time constraint.

In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Etkin and her two coauthors found that when people perceive their goals to be in conflict, they feel more pressed for time, less inclined to wait, and more willing to pay more to save time. “Pursuing goals takes time, money, and self-control, and all of these resources are limited; therein lies the conflict,” says Etkin. “In most cases, spending any of these resources on one goal leaves less available for the others. And the conflict we feel has consequences for how much time we think we have.”

In five experiments, the researchers tested subjective perceptions of goal conflict to see how participants’ stress levels and anxiety might shape how they see, spend, and value their time. What they discovered adds nuance to the old adage “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”

It turns out, when choosing between two conflicting things—say, to go on a pricey vacation or to save for retirement— we feel busier, more pressed for time, than we actually are. The effect applies broadly, and time needn’t be the issue: The goal conflict could relate to money or self-control, too. “All of these types of goal conflicts increase stress and anxiety,” says Etkin. “It’s these heightened negative emotions that make people feel time-constrained.”

Nothing illustrates modern goal conflict in action better than our Google or Outlook calendars: family events, personal appointments, meetings, deadlines, and reminders to feed pets and pay bills all are logged into one dynamic document, each responsibility bidding for a time slot.

“When we feel that our time is limited,” says Etkin, “we become less willing to spend it, and this has important implications for marketers and consumers.” Study participants were willing to spend 30 percent more to expedite shipping on a product they wanted to order when they felt goal conflict while making the shipping decision. Some consumer decisions spark more goal conflict than others, but if the choice requires goal-related tradeoffs—choosing between safety and style, say—people will be more satisfied with the outcome if they don’t have to wait for it, notes Etkin.

Because this effect is about perceived conflict, rather than actual conflict, Etkin and her colleagues found that people can modify their responses through slow breathing exercises and reframing their anxiety as excitement. “Like any assistant professor, I feel goal conflict all the time,” she says. “I use both techniques on myself several times a week, and so far, so good.”