Grapes of Wrath: How Self Control Leads to Anger - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #034

Grapes of Wrath: How Self Control Leads to Anger

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Does making a healthy food choice make us angry? In an important piece of consumer research, a relationship is found to exist between exerting self-control, and a preference toward ‘themes of anger’ in e.g. entertainment. This mismatch – getting irritated by our own self-control – has far-reaching implications for marketers and policy-makers as we try to further understand consumer behaviour.


Prior research has shown us that self-control can lead to increased aggression. Building on that, we can now show that people often get irritated by their own self-control. Furthermore, it is not just anger and aggression that increases, but also a general difficulty in keeping any undesirable behaviour in check.

In the research behind this Idea several connections are demonstrated between exerting self-control and angry behaviour. This suggests a broader link between them than previously identified. The research findings clearly call for new theorizing on the nature of the connection between self-control and angry behaviour.

Four studies were conducted as follows:

  1. Snack choice and movie preferences: in this experiment, participants chose between an apple (exerting self-control) and a chocolate candy bar (temptation) as a thank-you gift for participating, before making a movie choice. To account for the possibility that people who prefer apples to chocolate also happen to like anger-themed films, another set of students picked what to watch before they chose between the food options. Nevertheless, the authors still found that people who selected an apple before were more likely to opt for anger-themed entertainment than people who picked the apple afterward.
  2. Spending decision and preference for angry faces: here, participants could enter a raffle for one of two financial rewards: a grocery store gift certificate—the fiscally responsible choice – or a spa certificate – the less responsible but more luxurious option. The students also looked at photos of six faces, three with angry expressions and three with fearful expressions, and were asked to rank how interested they were in each face. Exercising self-control (i.e. picking the groceries rather than the spa) before looking at the photos made people more interested in the angry faces, but not the fearful ones, than people who picked the groceries after seeing the faces.
  3. Response to attempt to control: using the same matched-choice paradigm as in the first experiment, here participants still chose between an apple and a chocolate bar. However, instead of picking movies, they then read a passage exhorting them to exercise, which was packed with what scientists call controlling language: “must,” “need to,” “ought,” and “should.” After reading the message, the students ranked how irritated they were with it. The same pattern emerged as when people picked movies; participants who chose the apple before reading the passage found it more irritating than students who chose the apple afterward. Students who picked the chocolate, however, felt the same about the message irrespective of when they selected their snack (i.e. act of keeping a sweet tooth in check made the students more irritable).
  4. Response to anger-framed persuasion and the moderating role of dietary style: finally, again using the matched-choice paradigm, participants were asked to choose between an apple and chocolate bar, and then respond to public policy messages. They read six appeals for good causes, written in a way that evoked either sadness or anger, and were asked to rate how much they agreed with each appeal. The participants were anger-oriented, viewing the angry appeals more favourably if they had chosen an apple first, but only if they were restrained eaters. Unrestrained eaters, regardless of what they chose, were like restrained eaters who chose the chocolate bar: the timing of when they chose a food did not affect their emotions.

The research demonstrates that choosing responsible options over immediate gratifications tends to increase subsequent preferences for anger-related stimuli, such as anger-themed movies and angry facial expressions. Furthermore, exerting self-control can increase endorsement of anger-framed message appeals, and intensify irritation towards controlling persuasive messages.


Of course, self-regulation is a part of most peoples’ everyday lives, and therefore, anger-related behaviour as a result of it might be more prevalent than previously assumed. This will have important implications for marketers, policy makers and consumer well-being.

For consumers, these findings suggest one should be aware of the potential angry behaviour produced while self-regulating. Companies, on the other hand, might do well in advertising anger-themed movies and video games (e.g. Angry Birds) next to healthy food aisles. Finally, this also suggests public policy messages regarding healthy eating, or other forms of self regulation such as saving for retirement, might need to be mindful of the emotional consequences such messages might have on consumers.



Grapes of Wrath: The Angry Effects of Self Control. David Gal & Wendy Liu. Journal of Consumer Research (January 2011).

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Idea conceived

January 1, 2011

Idea posted

Jan 2013
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