Fox School of BusinessIdea Marketplace

In today’s fast-paced society, if there is one word that doesn’t escape us, it is “busy.” How does this ongoing obsession with the idea of being busy affect the choices we make?

As a behavioral scientist, Monica Wadhwa, associate professor in Marketing and Supply Chain Management at the Fox School, studies the impact of having a busy mindset on decision making. In a paper that was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Wadhwa discovered that people who see themselves as busy are more likely to make decisions that are beneficial in the long run, such as making healthier choices.

Prior research has established that high-stress situations—especially when work has to be completed within set deadlines—impair consumers’ ability to exercise self-control. As a result, people tend to give in to impulses that have negative long-term health consequences.

But turns out that that is not the end of the story. While being overworked can be problematic, there are benefits to feeling busy.

Wadhwa highlights that there lies a difference between being busy under time pressure and having a busy mindset. “A busy mindset is merely a perception that one is busy,” says Wadhwa. “Two people could have the same amount of work to do, but the perceptions of busyness could differ.”

Wadhwa notes, “Feeling busy gives people a sense of pride.” This behavior stems from the fact that busy people are perceived to be more important and have a higher social status. “It makes us feel valued and makes us believe that every moment of our lives matters,” says Wadhwa. “When you feel you are important, you make decisions that are better for you from a long-term beneficial perspective.”

For example, if one had to choose between an apple and a chocolate brownie, someone who is under significant time pressure would give in to their momentary impulses and pick the brownie. However, a person with a busy mindset would more likely focus on the long-term implications of the choice. Wadhwa says, “They’re more likely to choose the apple, favoring health consequences over taste, which provides only immediate gratification.”

To capture the busy mindset behavior over a wide range of scenarios, Wadhwa and her fellow researchers, Jeehye Christine Kim and Amitava Chattopadhyay, conducted seven experiments, including a field study. In one of the experiments, the researchers analyzed the buying pattern of students at a college dining hall. “We created two types of visual signs to be posted on different days,” explains Wadhwa. One read “Good to go, for busy college students!” whereas the other read “Good to go, for summer college students!” Wadhwa notes that the days when ‘busyness’ was made salient through visual signs, students chose to consume less unhealthy food and fewer fat calories.

To analyze how busyness affects branding, the researchers compared the buying behavior of consumers for brands perceived to be indulgent, such as Carl’s Jr. For the study, consumers were shown an advertisement that featured a tagline that either made busyness salient (It’s good to go for busy college students) or not (It’s good to go for college students). Those participants who saw the ad with busy tagline were less likely to consume the indulgent food from Carl’s Jr. than those who saw the ad with a non-busy tagline. It turns out that for brands that are not perceived as indulgent, such as Subway, busy taglines did not negatively impact consumption behaviors.

The researchers also studied the impact of this mindset on other self-control situations, like saving for retirement among adults and making good grades among students. “We asked adults the percentage of income they are willing to save,” says Wadhwa. “Busy people were willing to save more.” Similar behavior was seen in students—busier students said they’d rather take extra credit even if it means more work.

The findings of this study, besides adding a new dimension to the otherwise popular perspective of being busy, also have important real-world implications, especially to marketers. A growing number of commercials are using the busy appeal to make the product more relevant and favorable to new-age consumers. But the study shows that this strategy could backfire for brands that are perceived as indulgent. “For instance, Dunkin Donuts’ advertisements using a busy appeal may actually reduce consumers’ desire for donuts,” adds Wadhwa.

To consumers and policymakers who are concerned with people’s self-discipline, especially in societal problems such as overeating and food waste, Wadhwa offers: “Perhaps activating a busy mindset may be an effective nudge to facilitate self-control behavior.”

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