How addictive frames can undermine perceived control
Meng, Matthew D.
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Many varieties of consumption are often mischaracterized as “addictive,” such as social media use, chocolate consumption, shopping, and viewing pornography, even though considerable evidence indicates that they are not intrinsically addictive. This research examines whether labeling everyday products and activities as “addictive,” a common occurrence in modern media, popular culture, and marketing, can actually influence consumption. Given the consistent use of warning-based interventions related to established addictions (e.g., cigarettes, drugs, gambling), there exists an implicit assumption that warning consumers about the addictiveness of freely available products and generally socially acceptable activities will reduce the behavior. However, the potentially negative consequences of labeling non-addictive behaviors as addictive remain unclear. It was predicted and found that explicitly framing everyday consumption behavior as being addictive reduces consumers’ perceived control over the focal behavior resulting in increased consumption. Specifically, across twelve studies, consumers led to believe that consumption activities including eating chocolate and granola, shopping, using social media, and viewing pornography are addictive increases that behavior due to a decrease in perceived control. The effect of the addictive frame was not found to occur for purely virtuous and arguably less desirable and enjoyable foods (e.g., peas). Further, the effect does not spillover to other similar foods (e.g., M&Ms versus Skittles), meaning the effect is not simply a result of inducing a general lack of perceived control over all activities. Finally, boosting control by reminding consumers of situations where they had control over their own food consumption attenuated the effect of existing addictive beliefs. Alternative explanations such as the influence of a diminished sense of personal responsibility (via guilt), the forbidden fruit effect (via desire and excitement), affect regulation, and descriptive social norms were also tested and ruled out. This research has implications for how these behaviors are portrayed in marketing communications, the media, and public policy, and can be used to develop more effective interventions for at-risk consumers.