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If you’re struggling to beat an online shopping habit, you may want to take a moment to organize your desk. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that tidying your home or office could help curb your urge to spend.
“Past research has shown that characteristics of the physical environment, such as color, scent, ceiling height and crowding can affect the way consumers think and make consumption decisions,” write study authors Boyoun (Grace) Chae and Rui (Juliet) Zhu in the report. “We extend this line of research by demonstrating that another important environmental property, namely orderliness, can affect self-regulation.”
According to the study, clutter is surprisingly destructive if you’re already prone to impulse purchases. It saps your mental and emotional energy and wears down your self-control — making it harder for you to resist your urge to splurge.
Shopping in an organized environment, by contrast, may have the opposite effect and make it more likely that you’ll pass on buying another item you don’t need.
How it works
Mess isn’t just annoying, argue Chae and Zhue; it’s emotionally depleting.
When you’re surrounded by disorder, you may subconsciously feel like you have less control over your physical surroundings. And, as a result, you wind up feeling less in charge of your personal circumstances and more stressed out.
“Humans have a fundamental need to control their environment,” write Chae and Zhue. If you think you can’t control the mess that’s cluttering your office or your home, the theory goes, then you may feel the rest of your life is out of your hands as well. “The messiness and unpredictable nature of the environment are likely to make people feel that they have little personal control over their environment and their life,” they write. That, in turn, is stressful and can sap your mental energy.
The problem is people only have so much energy to go around. So being in a messy room may also wind up depleting that extra oomph of willpower you need to resist temptation and keep your wallet in your pocket. (Chae and Zhue’s study echoes Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan’s recent argument that financial stress wears people down and degrades their decision-making.)
Inside the study
Chae and Zhue came to their conclusion after conducting multiple experiments testing people’s responses in different environments.
In one particular study, a group of participants were placed in a messy room and asked how much they were willing to pay for a particular purchase, such as a pricey TV, high-end chocolate or a ski vacation. Others were asked the same thing but were placed in an orderly room instead. A third group was placed in a nearly empty room.
According to the Chae and Zhue, participants in the messy room named significantly higher prices, on average, than participants in the other two rooms.
The researchers concluded the mess eroded their self-control.
Your bottom line
The next time you get the urge to shop online, tidy up around you first. You may find that you spend less money, on average, when the environment surrounding your computer is orderly and serene, rather than chaotic.