Checking Out Temptation: A Natural Experiment with Purchases at the Grocery Register

 A lengthy literature in economics and psychology indicates that prolonged exposure to a tempting stimulus can lead people to “succumb” to that temptation. Here we develop a model of decision under temptation, and test its predictions using a natural experiment. We take advantage of exogenous variations in the amount of time over 2,800 individual consumers spent exposed to tempting items while waiting in grocery store checkout lines. Because we passively observe these consumers’ naturally occurring purchase decisions, our approach avoids confounds that can arise in designed experiments on temptation and self-control. Our main finding is that time spent in line economically and statistically significantly increases the probability that a consumer purchases a tempting item. Our results provide novel quantitative content to the rapidly expanding literature on decisions under temptation.

 

First version: August 2004

This version: January 2021

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