As consumers, we are constantly choosing whether to practice self-control or allow our desires to take over in decision-making. Frank May, assistant professor of marketing, found that memory is not always a reliable source during these decisions, like we may assume. In his recent research, May found that when given an opportunity to indulge, memories of past behavior may become distorted in order to justify a treat.

For example, May says, “Consumers may trick themselves into thinking something like, ‘I’ve been good on my diet lately, so I can have this piece of cake.’” His study also highlights that individuals who are more naturally impulsive are more likely to fall victim to this kind of “memory distortion.”

May suggests keeping a journal that documents both indulgences and self-control successes to keep consumers on track, as well as encouraging those around you – such as a teacher or personal trainer- to help stay reminded of future goals.

May’s study, “Licensing Indulgence in the Present by Distorting Memories of Past Behavior,” co-authored with Caglar Irmak, of the University of Miami, was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Read related article