My research program focuses on consumer goals and motivation. I often explore the role emotions play in motivation. My work is theory-focused, with an eye towards introducing new constructs, exploring new processes, or identifying where existing theories intersect to generate new insights. At the same time, I focus on topics that offer applied insights to both consumers and marketers.

I detail below specific findings and contributions of my published work.

For a brief summary, please see the "Research Summary" page.

I divided my work into three sections (persistence at long-term goals, goals and emotions, and "other") for ease of readership, though many projects overlap across sections.


Self-Regulation and Persistence at Long-Term Goals

In my programmatic exploration of motivation, I often focus on long-term goals, such as losing weight or reducing debt. Challenges in pursuing these goals underlie many of society’s biggest struggles  including obesity, mounting debt, and a lack of retirement savings. I explore how marketers can create programs and products to help consumers do better at such goals.


Specifically, in pursuing these goals, consumers must self-regulate repeatedly. After all, one does not become obese from eating one donut, or go into severe debt from buying a single pair of shoes. Rather, a sequence of failures is required for serious negative consequences to emerge, and a sequence of successes is needed for long-term goals to be attained. The steps in this sequence are called “subgoals”. In several key projects, I explore how failure or success at subgoals affects persistence at the overall, long-term goal.

Zemack-Rugar et al. (2012), “The Response-To-Failure Scale: Predicting Behavior Following Initial Self-Control Failure”, Journal of Marketing Research, 49(6), 996-1014. 

Zemack-Rugar, Yael, Canan Corus, and David Brinberg (2019a), “If at First You Do Succeed, Do You Try, Try Again? Developing the Persistence-Licensing Response Measure to Understand, Predict, and Modify Behavior Following Subgoal Success, Journal of Marketing Research, 56 (2), 324-344. 


In these two articles I examined how subgoal failure/success affected subsequent goal persistence. For example, how exceeding one's budget affected subsequent spending, or how succeeding at a fitness test affected subsequent persistence at exercise. Building on dynamic goal theories (Bagozzi and Dholakia 1999; Carver and Scheier 2001) I proposed and showed that behavior following subgoal failure/success was driven by consumers’ cognitive and emotional responses to that failure/success, and that these responses were consistent over time and across domains, constituting an individual difference or tendency. I developed and validated the Response-to-Failure Scale and the Persistence-Licensing Response Measure, which (respectively) captured these responses to subgoal failure/success. I demonstrated that these scales predicted post-failure (or post-success) behavior better than existing related measures, and I applied insights from the measures to generate interventions that improved consumer persistence. 

As a blind peer reviewer noted: “I’m impressed by the Sisyphean work that the authors have done; scale development is an immensely laborious task that most people avoid like the plague. And scale development about something interestingas is the case here—is even rarer.

Theoretical and applied contributions:

  • Although prior work examined the effects of consumers’ cognitive and emotional responses to subgoal failure one-at-a-time, theoretical models suggest that multiple responses are likely experienced concurrently. My work accounted for this concurrent experience, providing a more complete theoretical account of consumers’ post-failure behavior.     

  • My work was the first to suggest and show that these responses can be driven by chronic individual differences. I created and validated measures that captured these differences. 

  • I applied these constructs to identify theoretical and empirical differences between self-regulation in the absence of subgoal failure/success, and sequential self-regulation, following sub-goal failure/success. Such differences had been theorized (Baumeister, Heatherton, and Tice 1994), but had not been empirically shown.

  • I applied these constructs to identify differences between subgoal failure and subgoal success, which were largely treated as mirror images. For example, I showed that as compared to post-success behavior, post-failure behavior was more strongly affected by consumers' emotional responses.

  • A wide array of products, such as dieting apps, gym memberships, tutoring programs, and savings plans are intended to help consumers persist at their long-term goals. Increasing persistence at such goals can create a win-win: consumers can benefit from greater success on key goals, and marketers can benefit from consumers’ satisfaction and loyalty. My measures provide marketers with an effective segmentation tool that can help them identify vulnerable consumers (e.g., those likely to fail/drop out of long-term goal programs).

  • These tools can be used to design and target marketing communications. For example, my data suggests that consumers with low Persistence-Licensing Response scores should receive few communications about progress/success, as these tend to demotivate them; the opposite of true of consumers with high scale scores.

  • I demonstrated how insights from the scale can be used to increase consumer persistence, for example, by increasing their long-term focus, or changing products' reward structure.

  • Both measures were developed in key goal domains (e.g., eating, spending). However, a template is provided for marketers (and researchers) to develop additional ad-hoc measures.


This work has been cited in a variety of fields, including medicine (Edlind et al., 2018), finance (Peltier et al., 2016), psychology (Prinsen, Evers, and deRidder 2016; Worrell et al. 2016), and marketing (Haws et al. 2016a; Fernbach et al. 2015; Salerno et al., 2015). Further, this work has served as a foundation for other scale work in top-tier journals (Haws et al., 2016b; Hsee et al. 2015; Weathers and Siemens 2018). This work has also received exposure in the popular press (e.g., Business Insider).

Zemack-Rugar, Yael, and Canan Corus (2018), “The Effects of Anticipated Goal-Inconsistent Behavior on Present Goal Choices, Psychology & Marketing, 35(9), 676-695. 



This work examined how anticipated subgoal failure (e.g., expecting to overspend on vacation) affected present goal behavior (i.e., spending choices before the vacation). I showed that when future goal-inconsistent behavior was perceived as unchangeable, consumers not only failed to buffer against its effects, but ironically increased goal-inconsistent choices. This effect was moderated by the Response-to-Failure scale, that is—by consumers’ chronic cognitive and emotional responses to subgoal failure.


Theoretical and Applied Contributions:

  • Prior work on the influence of one goal behavior on another can be mapped using two key dimensions: timing (past vs. future) and type (subgoal failure vs. success). A literature review reveals that the effects of future subgoal failure behavior on present goal choices remains unexamined; I addressed this theoretical gap.

  • This work also introduced the construct of perceived changeability into the goal literature.

  • I theoretically explored similarities and differences in the processes activated by past vs. future subgoal failure.

  • This work extended the usability of the Response-to-Failure scale, showing that it applies not only to failures that have already occurred, but also to those anticipated in the future.

  • The scale can be used to identify consumers vulnerable to a double-threat; consumers with high scale scores are likely to behave inconsistently with their goals in advance of subgoal failure, and again after failure.

  • My work identified strategies for increasing goal adherence by the aforementioned vulnerable consumers (e.g., Study 4).

Zemack-Rugar, Yael, Canan Corus, and David Brinberg (2019b), “The Academic Response-to-Failure Scale: Predicting and Increasing Academic Persistence Post-Failure,Journal of Marketing Education, in press.



In this work, I developed an academic version of the Response-to-Failure scale and showed that this scale predicted post-failure behavior in the academic domain better than existing measures. 


Theoretical and Applied Contributions:

  • Prior research focused on theories of academic motivation, perceived academic abilities, and general self-regulation abilities to predict academic persistence. I demonstrated that a dynamic goal perspective, that focused on consumers' cognitive and emotional responses to subgoal failure, offered a better theoretical approach.

  • As a result, I demonstrated that the academic Response-to-Failure scale predicted persistence following failure better than existing constructs of measures.

  • Such prediction is practically important. Academic failure is an epidemic of alarming proportions. Over the past 20 years, more than 30 million students have enrolled in, and then dropped out of, college (Bell, Fryar, & Hillman, 2018). A study of over 1,500 academic institutions reveals dropouts cost these institutions nearly $16.5 billion a year (Raisman, 2013), cost the U.S. economy nearly $100 billion annually (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2018), and negatively affect students’ financial well-being. My work offers a new tool for identifying vulnerable students who chronically tend to give up following failure.

  • I also demonstrated how this tool can be applied to develop and target interventions (utilizing limited intervention resources) at students who chronically fail to persist after failure (Study 4).


Self-Regulation Goals and Emotions

As noted above, my work on self-regulation and sequential goals includes an emotional dimension. For example, I explore the role of consumers’ emotional responses to subgoal failure/success; I also identify differences in the role of emotions following subgoal failure versus success. I continue my focus on the role of emotions in self-regulation in additional projects. In several of these projects, I explore the self-regulation of prosocial motivation (e.g., donating), which requires consumers to forego their short-term, selfish goals, in favor of long-term societal goals.


My work on emotion and self-regulation has been cited extensively across disciplines, including psychology (e.g., Schroder and Thagard 2013; Tong, Tan, and Tan 2013; Winkielman 2010), neuro-psychology (e.g., Gilead et al. 2015; Pichon, Rieger, and Vuilleumier 2012), economics (Andersson et al. 2017), decision sciences (Lu, Liu, and Fang 2016), and marketing (e.g., Allard and White 2015; Amatulli et al. 2017; Goldsmith, Kim, and Dhar 2012; Hu and Kaplan 2013; Martin and Morich 2011; Matherly, Ghosh, and Joshi 2019). This work has also been mentioned in the popular press (e.g., The Wall Street Journal ).

Zemack-Rugar, Yael, James R. Bettman & Gavan J. Fitzsimons (2007), “The Effects of Nonconsciously Priming Emotion Concepts on Behavior, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(6), 927-939. 


In this work, I showed that subliminal primes of specific negative emotions (i.e., guilt vs. sadness) are not consciously registered, lead to no reported differences in consumers’ emotional experience, but still affect behavior. Specifically, I demonstrated that non-conscious guilt (but not non-conscious sadness) led to reduced indulgent consumption and increased prosocial behavior.  


Theoretical and Applied Contributions: 

  • The construct and concept of non-conscious emotions was introduced in this work. Though the literature spoke of non-conscious affect, that is—non-conscious positive vs. negative evaluations (Winkielman, Berridge, and Wilbarger 2005)—no evidence existed that emotions of the same valence could be non-consciously activated and still affect behavior. My work was the first to demonstrate such an effect. Due to its novelty, this work has already garnered over 200 citations.

  • My findings showed that consumption choices (e.g., indulgent consumption, prosocial behavior) can be affected by emotions outside of consumers’ consciousness. It helped marketers understand such effects, and potentially structure communications around them.

Zemack-Rugar, Yael, Rebecca Rabino, Lisa A. Cavanaugh, and Gavan J. Fitzsimons (2016), “When Donating is Liberating: The Role of Product and Consumer Characteristics in the Appeal of Cause-Related Products, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26 (2), 213-230.   


In this project, I continued my work on guilt, indulgent consumption, and prosocial behavior. I showed that whereas guilty consumers normally avoided indulgent consumption (Zemack-Rugar et al. 2007), offering to donate a portion of sales increased indulgent consumption, especially by guilt-prone consumers.


Theoretical and Applied Contributions:

  • This work provided evidence of a compensatory mechanism, whereby the guilt-alleviating properties of prosocial behavior compensated for the guilt-inducing properties of indulgent consumption, liberating consumers to indulge guilt-free.

  • This provided new insights into the role of guilt in the consumption of cause-related products, and distinguished between guilt and other emotions.

  • This work provided advice to marketers on the effectiveness of pairing different products (i.e., hedonic vs. utilitarian) with prosocial campaigns. The findings contradicted related work that suggested associating CSR with hedonic products can have negative effects (Torelli et al. 2012); my findings demonstrate when and for whom such associations can have a positive impact.

  • The findings also demonstrated how consumption guilt affected which dimensions of the product/charity consumers attended to, an important consideration in structuring CSR appeals.

Zemack-Rugar, Yael, Sarah G. Moore, and Gavan J. Fitzsimons (2017), “Just Do It! Why Committed Consumers React Negatively to Assertive Ads, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 27 (3), 287-301. 


I continued my work on guilt in another self-regulation context: reactance motivation. Reactance motivation captures consumers’ automatic desire to assert their freedom when a threat to such freedom is perceived (Brehm 1966). Consumers often pursue this short-term motivation at the expense of longer-term goals (e.g., good decision making; Fitzsimons and Lehmann 2004); thus, reactance motivation involves self-regulation. I demonstrated that when consumers have a committed (but not uncommitted) relationship with a brand, assertive ad language (e.g., “Buy Now!”) elicited guilt; this guilt ironically backfired, activating reactance motivation and resulting in reduced compliance with the ad.

Theoretical and Applied Contributions:

  • This work was the first to identify guilt as an emotion that operates in the process of consumer reactance, by introducing the construct of noncompliance guilt.

  • This work was also the first to identify consumer-brand relationships as a moderator of reactance, showing that reactance was greater for committed (than uncommitted) consumers.

  • This work drew an important distinction between human and brand relationships. While in human relationships guilt increases compliance, I showed that in brand relationships--it backfires, and reduces compliance.

  • Assertive ad language is exceedingly common. Though prior work had already demonstrated its dangers, my findings showed these dangers exceeded previously identified boundaries (e.g., happened even when there was no real consequence to noncompliance).

  • I also highlighted how assertive language negatively affects marketers’ most loyal and valuable customers and demonstrated the effectiveness of two  remedies (Studies 2, 5).


Motivation & Goals: Other Dimensions

I continued  my focus on goals and motivation in additional projects, where I explored the intersection of these constructs with other key psychological theories and constructs.

Zemack-Rugar, Yael, and Sona Klucarova-Travani (2018), “Should Donation Ads Include Happy Victims? The Moderating Role of Regulatory Focus, Marketing Letters, 29(4), 421-434. 


This work examined how emotions in ad imagery (i.e., sad vs. happy victims) and regulator-focus in ad wording (i.e., gain attainment vs. loss avoidance phrasing) interacted to affect donation behavior. I predicted and showed that ads that combined a happy victim image with an attainment-focused message (e.g., “Make kids happy and healthy”) were the most effective at increasing donations. 


Theoretical and Applied Contributions:

  • This work was the first to theoretically and empirically consider cross-modality effects of ad imagery and wording.

  • This work identified a new downstream consequence of ad imagery: perceived response efficacy.

  • Perceived response efficacy was defined as the perception that the charity's efforts would be efficacious in applying donated funds. This diverged from prior definitions of efficacy in prosocial behavior, which focused on consumers' self-efficacy, thus adding new dimensionality to this interesting construct.

  • This work offered nonprofit marketers and consumers using crowdfunding guidance on how to combine victim images and ad messaging to construct effective fundraising ads.

Zemack-Rugar, Yael, and Rebecca Rabino (2019), “The Impact of Visualizing Use versus Acquisition of a Product on the Appeal of its Complement, Psychology & Marketing, in press. 


In this project, I explored how different types of visualization (i.e., use vs. acquisition) affected consumers' focus on different goal dimensions (i.e., how vs. why), leading to differential preference of a complimentary product. Specifically, I showed that imagining acquisition (vs. use) of a product, led to a why (vs. how) focus, leading to a focus on product goals (vs. attributes); because products and complements are more related in their goals than attributes, this process resulted in greater appeal of the complement in the imagined acquisition (than use) condition.


Theoretical and Applied Contributions:  

  • Prior work on visualization focused on how visualization affects the visualized product itself; instead, I examined effects on other, related products. 

  • This work also highlighted that visualizing different consumption actions can make different product dimensions salient

  • By looking at a focus on different goal dimensions (i.e., how vs. why), I incorporated work on construal theory (Trope and Liberman 2000), a key motivational theory, and work on complimentarity, linking the two..

  • The findings revealed to marketers new downstream consequences of consumer visualization, encouraging retailers to make space and time for consumer visualization.

  • The work guided marketers in designing communications that encourage specific types of visualization (e.g., acquisition vs. use).

  • The findings inform the layout of retail environments, connecting visualization spaces with product locations, not just for visualized items, but also for their complements.

BA2-308 D, Department of Marketing University of Central Florida
Orlando 32812