You can't always get what you want: Consumers struggle with competing goals

July 17, 2012

Consumers change their minds often when making choices that involve conflicting goals, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

"Consumers frequently face situations where they can't get everything they want from the options available to them. As competing goals struggle for , are likely and consumers tend to flip-flop en route to making a decision," write authors Kurt A. Carlson (Georgetown University), Margaret G. Meloy (Pennsylvania State University), and Elizabeth G. Miller (University of Massachusetts Amherst).

Consumers frequently have to choose between options that satisfy very different and often competing goals. For example, you're at a restaurant and that piece of chocolate cake displayed under the counter is talking to you. But your "fit self" thinks you should grab an apple instead. Or you're out shopping and have to choose between two pairs of shoes. One pair is more stylish but the other is much more comfortable. Such situations are common and consumers who find themselves torn between two goals are the most susceptible to influence.

Goals initially ignored by consumers do not fade away, but will instead linger in the backs of our minds. During the time we ignore a particular goal, it will get stronger and eventually come to the surface. We can no longer ignore the goal and we then flip-flop between various options.

Most supermarkets force us to enter near the produce section. Even if we aren't planning to buy any fruits or , it would probably benefit us to pass through on our way to the aisle. Consumers watching their weight should remember that this could impact their decisions when they reach the snack aisle.

"Our study provides a glimpse into why feel so much angst when they encounter choices with conflicting goals. Namely, the goal that appears to have been initially ignored finds new energy on the back burner and reasserts itself at the next earliest opportunity. In short, important goals are hard to ignore because ignoring them just makes them stronger," the authors conclude.

Explore further: Not buying it: Marketing messages may not work in uncommon situations

More information: Kurt A. Carlson, Margaret G. Meloy, and Elizabeth G. Miller. "Goal Reversion in Consumer Choice." Journal of Consumer Research: February 2013.

Related Stories

How do consumers revise their unreachable goals?

August 10, 2011

Most consumers spend their lives setting -- and revising -- goals. Authors of a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research have unveiled a new model that captures the dynamics of goal revision.

Recommended for you

Chimpanzees shed light on origins of human walking

October 6, 2015

A research team led by Stony Brook University investigating human and chimpanzee locomotion have uncovered unexpected similarities in the way the two species use their upper body during two-legged walking. The results, reported ...

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.