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Good Housekeeping
Jennifer Chan, Contributor
November 14, 2011

Lack of Control Makes You Seek out Structured, Organized Environments

Research shows that the less in control you feel, the more you'll look for the trappings of structure, which can affect your buying habits and even cause you to make drastic life changes. By Jennifer Chan

When you feel like you have no control over your life, your natural reaction is to rectify the situation immediately. You quickly find a way to re-establish boundaries into your life, which, according to a study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, can be as mundane as going to the store and purchasing items with borders or as life-changing as going back to church and reaffirming your spiritual beliefs.  

Keisha M. Cutright, an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton explains that "boundaries, by their very nature, dictate where things belong and consequently represent the establishment of order and structure in the environment."

Right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, citizens still shaken up by the unfathomable tragedy instinctively sought ways to regain a semblance of control over their lives. Cutright points out the growing support for government, the frequent trips to the church, and yes, even the increased purchases of items that were tightly bound, bordered, and structured following the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. 

It is interesting to see that people also look to tangible items for that sense of balance, comfort, and boundary. Cutright no doubt sees this discovery as an important lesson for marketers to take note of.

In a more controlled experiment, the study pooled together two groups of students to test just how strong the need for structure and organization really is. The participants were exposed to loud noises like alarms, bells, and sirens--all of which are likely to induce a sense of helplessness. However, only one group was given a remote control to switch the sounds off whenever they pleased. Keep in mind that none of the participants had any idea of the experiment’s true nature; they were made to believe that it was simply a test to see if they could answer math questions despite the jarring distractions. 

After the ordeal, the students were asked to choose from two different postcards as rewards for their participation. One of the postcards had a border while the other did not. As it turned out, those who had not been given a remote control and so had been forced to endure the loud, grating noises, were more likely to choose the one with the border than those who could switch the noise off any time they wanted to. 

As far as consumer behavior goes, Cutright does not limit the need for setting boundaries to simply buying structured products and whatnot. According to the researcher, consumers could go so far as to express a preference for companies that have stayed close to their original selves over companies that have opted to branch out or partner with other brands. 

What about you? Do you also find yourself seeking structure and organization after a particularly harrowing day at school or at work? 


As the research says, creating boundaries can make yourself feel more secure in stressful situations. Try doing a little bit of organization. You can use these articles for tips:


(Photo by plex via sxc.hu)

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Jennifer Chan
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Jennifer Chan was a contributing writer for Female Network for two years before formally joining the team as a staff writer in July 2012... Read more...
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