Overview: Research Program
My research focuses on consumer goals and motivation, often at the intersection with emotion.
Much of my work focuses on self-regulation goals, which require consumers to forego their short-term wants and desires (e.g., frivolous spending, indulgent eating), in favor of behaviors that are more long-term focused (e.g., saving, eating healthily, donating to charity). In exploring these tradeoffs I have introduced new constructs, identified novel processes, and combined existing theories to generate original insights.
My findings offer marketers new segmentation tools, guidance on marketing communications, and suggestions for marketing frames and interventions. Many of the applied insights form my work are designed to help consumers and marketers improve consumers' performance on the above mentioned key goals (e.g., health, savings, prosocial behavior), creating a win-win: marketers benefit from increased consumer engagement, purchase, and loyalty, and consumers benefit from improved goal outcomes.
I describe my work briefly below, dividing it into three sub-sections (persistence at long-term goals, goals and emotions, and "other") for ease of readership, though these areas often overlap in my work.
Self-Regulation and Persistence at Long-Term Goals
Many important consumer goals, such as weight loss, saving, and debt reduction, require multiple sequential goal-consistent behaviors. In this sequence, consumers often perceive subgoal failure or success, for example, when they fail to reach a monthly savings target
in a multimonth program or when they successfully pay off one of several credit cards. Several of my papers explore how consumers behave following such subgoal failure or success: do they persist at the long-term goal (e.g., keep saving) or do they switch to shorter-term goals (e.g., enjoying spending)?
To answer this question I developed two new constructs: Response-to-Failure (Zemack-Rugar, Corus, and Brinberg 2012) and Persistence-Licensing Responses (Zemack-Rugar, Corus, and Brinberg 2019a). In both projects, I proposed and showed that consumers' behavior following subgoal failure/success depends on how they cognitively and emotionally interpret that failure/success. I further showed that these interpretations were consistent over time and across domains, constituting an individual difference or tendency.
I developed and validated measures to capture this tendency, which enabled me to extend prior work (that examined these cognitive and emotional responses one-at-a-time) by accounting for multiple responses concurrently. I also demonstrated that because the constructs and measures I developed accounted for the sequential nature of these goal behaviors, they predicted behavior better than existing self-regulation measures. In addition, I demonstrated key differences between subgoal failure and subgoal success.
I applied these measures to demonstrate how marketers can create interventions that improve consumer persistence at fitness, debt reduction (Zemack-Rugar et al. 2019a), academics (Zemack-Rugar et al. 2019b), and dieting (Zemack-Rugar and Corus 2018). My findings revealed previously unexplored heterogeneity in consumer behavior, showing that the same intervention affected different consumers differently (as a function of their scale score), offering marketers a new segmentation and targeting tool, and new advice on how to design and target products/programs that improve consumer persistence.
Self-Regulation Goals and Emotion
In addition to exploring the role of emotion in sequential self-regulation (e.g., the role of emotional responses to failure/success), I also examine the role of emotion in other self-regulation contexts, such as prosocial behavior and reactance motivation.
Prosocial behavior involves self-regulation as consumers must overcome their short-term wants (e.g., spending, shopping) in favor of longer-term societal needs (e.g., donating to help the poor). In several projects, I explore the role of various emotions (e.g., guilt, sadness, happiness) in prosocial behavior. For example, in Zemack-Rugar, Bettman, and Fitzsimons (2007) I showed that guilt increases prosocial behavior (and reduces indulgence), even when it is not consciously experienced. This work revealed to marketers subtle effects of emotion in the marketplace, and introduced the construct of non-conscious emotions, resulting in over 200 citations to date.
In subsequent exploration of the role of guilt in prosocial behavior, I demonstrated that highly guilt-prone consumers , who normally do not purchase indulgent products, were more likely than their less guilty counterparts to purchase indulgent products when a portion of sales was donated to charity; this charitable association liberated guilt-prone consumers to indulge guilt free (Zemack-Rugar et al. 2016). This work gave marketers guidance on which products are best paired with charitable donations, and which consumers are most responsive to such pairings. I have also explored the role of other emotions (e.g., happiness, sadness) in prosocial behavior (Zemack-Rugar and Klucarova-Travani 2018) providing marketers with further advice on how to structure charitable appeals.
In addition, I have explored the role of guilt in reactance (Zemack-Rugar, Moore, and Fitzsimons 2017). Reactance motivation (i.e., the automatic desire to assert one’s freedom; Brehm 1966) is often pursued at the expense of longer-term goals (e.g., good decision-making; Fitzsimons and Lehmann 2004). I introduced guilt as an emotion that operates in the process of reactance, and identified consumer-brand relationships as an important moderator. Specifically, I showed that assertive marketing communications caused committed consumers to feel guilty; this guilt backfired, leading to reactance and reduced compliance with the ad. I provided remedies for marketers to help them deal with such negative effects. Due to its broad applied relevance, this work was featured in the Wall Street Journal (Dizik 2017).
Motivation and Goals: Other
In other work, I have examined the intersection of goals and emotions with other key psychological theories, such as regulatory-focus and construal level. For example,
I examined the effects of victim's emotion in fundraising ads (happy vs. sad) and the regulatory-focus of messages in such ads (i.e., promotion vs. prevention) on prosocial behavior (Zemack-Rugar and Klucarova-Travani 2018). This work offered a novel exploration of the intersection of ad imagery and wording, and provided marketers with applied insights on how to design effective fundraising communications.
In other work, I examined the effects of visualization on product goal framing at a concrete (i.e., how-focused) vs. abstract (i.e., why-focused) construal level (Zemack-Rugar and Rabino 2019). I demonstrated that this differential focus had downstream effects on the appeal of a complement. This extended prior work, which has focused on the effects of visualization on the imagined product itself; instead, my work focused on visualization’s effect on other, related products. This work offered marketers practical advice on how to leverage consumer visualization in the retail environment.