Distorted Memory Can Trick You

November 12, 2019
Sean Owen
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If you’re struggling to curb your urge to splurge, you may want to keep better track of your recent purchases. A forthcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that impulsive spenders tend to conveniently forget just how much they spent the last time they indulged. “When faced with an opportunity to indulge, consumers may be motivated to distort their memories,” write study authors Frank May and Caglar Irmak in the report. That way, they can rationalize a future purchase, without the guilt.

For example, if you’re shopping for shoes and come across a pricey pair that would nearly blow your budget, you may subconsciously trick yourself into believing you can afford them because your faulty memory remembers spending less than you actually did.

“Impulsive people are willing to pay more for a pair of shoes,” write May and Irmak because they mistakenly believe “they did not spend much of their budget yet.”

According to Irmak and May, people with poor impulse control are especially bad about tricking themselves in order to justify a future splurge. But they only do it when they’re debating a future indulgence. When they’re not faced with an immediate temptation, their memory of a past event — such as a previous purchase — is more likely to be accurate.

In one experiment, participants were asked to imagine they were going on a shopping trip and had an extra $438 to spend. But they were also reminded that they were trying to fatten up their savings, so they shouldn’t spend too much. Participants were then told they spent $93 by the end of the trip.

After completing a series of “filler” tasks, some of the participants were then asked to imagine going on another shopping trip and coming across a pair of shoes they’d love to buy. They were asked to recall how much they spent the last time they went shopping and to estimate how much they’d be willing to pay for the shoes.

Stop yourself the next time you’re debating a new purchase and question your beliefs. You may find you’re engaging in magical thinking in an effort to justify your spending. It may also help to keep a spending diary so that you have proof of how much you previously spent, say Irmak and May. That way, you can use your journal to help correct your faulty memory and fight back against your tendency to conveniently “forget.”

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