‘Partners in crime’ let us indulge and keep us in check

"We like moral support when the stakes are high, but we enjoy having a 'partner in crime' when the stakes are lower," says Kelly L. Haws. (Credit: Steve McFarland/Flickr)

People are natural accomplices who like to conspire together to enjoy a small indulgence, but also to resist temptation together when it matters most.

Researchers staged a series of experiments that paired consumers against different temptations and gauged how closely their reactions mirrored each other and how they felt about each other afterward.

“We like moral support when the stakes are high, but we enjoy having a ‘partner in crime’ when the stakes are lower,” says Kelly L. Haws, an associate professor at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management.

Ties that bind

When researchers tracked how many pieces of candy test subjects consumed during a short film, they found that most duos ate about the same amount.


“We find evidence of a general tendency for peers to ultimately match behaviors when facing a mutual temptation,” write Haws and Michael L. Lowe of Texas A&M in the study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Further, test subjects who ate a small amount of candy each later reported liking their partner more than when the study began. But participants who say they ate large amounts of candy reported liking their partner less than when the study began.

“We feel a greater sense of affiliation with a person when we eat or buy something considered bad, but not terrible, with a friend,” Haws says. “Likewise, we feel a stronger affiliation when a friend reaffirms a decision not to overindulge.”


Haws says this research is applicable to diverse self-control decisions from eating to spending money.

“The basic finding holds that if we’re with a friend and there’s a large amount of money at stake, it helps us feel better about the relationship if together we decline to waste a large amount of money,” Haws says.
The findings have relevance for marketers, policymakers, and consumers, the researchers say.

“Marketers can apply these findings to inform a number of important decisions related to promoting goods perceived as indulgences,” Haws says.

“Knowing that consumers prefer partners in crime when indulging on a small scale can inform decisions regarding communication strategies and messages, as well as promotional offers, perhaps by using a friends-and-family type of approach.”

On the other hand, knowing that mutually abstaining is also rewarding can help policy makers wishing to combat behaviors such as overspending, drug use, and overeating, the researchers say.

“You see this idea manifested in programs such as Weight Watchers, which builds around the idea of accountability and moral support for abstention,” Haws says.

Finally, consumers can use the knowledge to their advantage as they seek to control their decisions in social settings.

Source: Vanderbilt University