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Justifying Indulgent Choices: The Role of Deservingness in Consumer Decisions

Relevant topics Archive, Strategy

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    When given the choice between a goal-aligned choice or succumbing to an indulgent treat or purchase, a consumer will justify the indulgence by overstating their life problems, essentially validating their indulgent choice as being deserving of it.
  • Application:
    By subtly implying a customer deserves your product or service, a customer may more likely justify the purchase and deviate from goal-aligned choices to satisfy the indulgence.
  • Whether it’s New Year’s resolutions or another self-made commitment, individuals face a daily barrage of goal conflicts. Granola bar or brownie? Gym or another Netflix binge? Scroll social media or pick up a good book?

    Conflicts of goals occur when a person must choose between pursuing long-term goals or succumbing to indulgences. And it turns out, willpower isn’t the only factor.

    While it might seem easy to choose a healthier option, especially knowing there’s a weight-loss or healthy goal attached to it for example, studies have found that self-control failure is higher when there’s a meaningful reason to justify the indulgence.

    In other words, give yourself a good reason and you’ll choose the indulgence nearly every time.

    Justifying Choice: The Role of Deservingness

    A donut here. An expensive purchase there. Consumers have a lot of reasons why they purchase indulgent, often unnecessary, products. One strategy that researchers have found consumers use when choosing indulgent purchases is that of deservingness. Deservingness is when there is a sense of entitlement for the desired outcome (Texer & Sobol, 2021). By overstating their life problems, thereby evoking their sense of deservingness, they justify the indulgent choice.

    While the vast majority of previous research focused on the use of existing justifications to rationalize purchases, what is most interesting here is the focus on how consumers create justifications when faced with a goal conflicting purchase decision. When activated, this need for justification carries an incredible influence on purchase intent and consumer self-regulation.

    That said, there must be a reason for feeling deserving. By overstating life’s problems, consumers justify their indulgence as well-deserved. This justification leads to a downstream effect resulting in a more positive view of their decision after the indulgence. It’s only when consumers overstate their life problems, causing stress and discontent, that they create justifications to indulge.

    The Stories We Tell Ourselves

    Tezer and Sobol (2021) conducted three studies, each measuring particular variables related to a consumer’s justification. As it turns out, the stories consumers tell themselves play a major role in the creation of the justification.

    Let’s take, for example, donuts. The consumer, we’ll call her Sally, is on a weight-loss plan that doesn’t allow for donuts. But Sally really wants that donut she just passed at the shop on her way home from work. Sally knows the donut isn’t helping her lose weight but she’s had a really tough day, her boss was particularly rough on her, and she really can’t stand that new guy in accounting. Plus, she hasn’t had a donut (or any indulgence) for days. Sally buys the donut and tells herself it’s not that big of a deal, she just won’t do it again.

    • When faced with a goal conflict, a consumer will begin to overstate their current life problems to justify the purchase (Sally begins to justify her bad day and overstate what went wrong)
    • Consumers then strategically manipulate facts or previous events to align with the justification (Sally hasn’t had a donut in a few days except she doesn’t mention she did have a cookie yesterday)
    • Consumers will then often understate the current indulgence by telling themselves it wasn’t as unhealthy/expensive/etc. in order to justify the next indulgence (Sally tells herself it’s no big deal and she’ll refrain the next time) 

    Why It Matters to Marketers

    Marketers can use this to their advantage, eliciting a sense of deservingness to encourage consumer buying decisions, across all channels of the marketing journey. Whether it’s a packaging designer or copywriter using language to invoke a sense of deservedness and value or a creative using visuals and storyboards to convey a sense of worthiness, this is a powerful persuasion tactic.

    That said, what are the ethical considerations for marketers? Convincing buyers to purchase non-goal aligned products or services means moving them away from goals they value. While invoking a sense of deservingness may increase revenues, what long-term value does it bring to the buyer?

    Key Takeaway

    By exaggerating their life problems, consumers will find justifications to indulge and deviate from goal-aligned behaviors. This justification involves manipulating previous facts or events to meet the justification’s needs. By overstating life’s problems, a consumer feels more deserving of treating themselves to ‘something special.’

  • Justifying Indulgent Choices: The Role of Deservingness in Consumer Decisions
  • Reference:

    Tezer, A., & Sobol, K. (2021). “My life is a mess, I deserve a brownie:” Justifying indulgence by overstating the severity of life problems. Psychology & Marketing, 38(9), 1393-1403.


    Further Reading

    • A New Excuse To Use When You Order Fast Food

      A New Excuse To Use When You Order Fast Food

      Have you ever been to a pub with the intention of doing just a few drinks and going home early, only to stay until closing time? A lot of people probably have. If you are one of them, have you ever wondered why you've indulged yourself much more than intended? There are several excuses you could tell yourself to justify staying longer than you should have. Maybe it was a really good night out and it would have been a shame to miss it. Maybe the DJ was playing your favorite music. Or maybe you're just bad at planning.


      A less common excuse is the dim lighting in the pub. Few people will believe you if you tell them that your hangover is caused by the lighting in the pub. However, research has indicated that this may have a significant effect on your night out after all. It turns out that the amount of light does more than just setting the atmosphere.

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