Discernment / Exercises

Discernment Exercise: Shoulds, Wants, and Faithfulness

When I purchase a food item at the supermarket, I can be confident that the label will state how much riboflavin is in it. The United States government requires this, and for a good reason, which is: I have no idea. I don’t even know what riboflavin is. I do know I eat a lot of it. For example, I often start the day with a hearty Kellogg’s strawberry Pop-Tart, which has, according to the label, a riboflavin rating of 10 percent. I assume this means that 10 percent of the Pop-Tart is riboflavin. Maybe it’s the red stuff in the middle. Anyway, I’m hoping riboflavin is a good thing; if it turns out that it’s a bad thing, like ‘riboflavin’ is the Latin word for ‘cockroach pus,’ then I am definitely in trouble.
[Dave Barry]

In their Fast Company column Dan and Chip Heath report on some fascinating new research into the purchasing habits of consumers. That got my attention for two reasons. For one thing, we’re all consumers. We can’t help it. And second, though we are consumers by nature, not by choice, how we go about consuming can involve a lot of choice. Though it often doesn’t.

Anyway, “Katherine Milkman, a doctoral student at Harvard Business School,” the Heaths write, “has studied the way customers wrestle with two kinds of products: ‘wants,’ which are things they crave in the moment, and ‘shoulds,’ which are the things they know are good for them. For instance, Milkman studied the Australian equivalent of Netflix and found that when customers rent a ‘should’ film, such as Schindler’s List, along with a ‘want’ film, such as Die Hard 3, they tend to watch (and return) the want film much faster.”

The tendency apparently isn’t limited to entertainment. “Milkman has found a similar pattern in the purchases of people who buy groceries online. When people are purchasing for next-day delivery, they order many more want foods than when they’re ordering for a more-distant delivery date. We are salad people in the future and Cheetos people in the moment.”

The Heaths go on to suggest that Milkman’s research suggests some opportunities for creative entrepreneurs.

People need help saving themselves from themselves, and that presents a business opportunity. What if payroll companies offered ‘contingent paychecks,’ dispersing your earnings only if you met the conditions you’d specified (e.g., taking four hours of Spanish lessons or watching Schindler’s List)? Or imagine that someone set up a national Opt Out of Fat registry, and if you signed up, restaurants would deny your requests for nachos and grocery stores would refuse to scan your Oreos. Might people pay for that?

We admit these ideas are a bit far-fetched and perhaps likely to end in bloodshed. But Milkman has offered more practical suggestions, such as cleverly bundling wants and shoulds. For instance, exercising is a should, so what if your gym offered to receive your magazine subscriptions? That way, to read the new Vanity Fair (a want), you’d have to drop by the gym. Or what if Blockbuster offered you a free tub of popcorn (a want) for every documentary (a should) that you rented?

It’s a compelling idea: Might the future of business lie in encouraging shoulds rather than indulging wants? Could corporations help us bring out our better selves? We hope so. But let’s face it—our wants are powerful and stubborn.

All of which raises some great questions worth discussing for Christians living in a consumerist society.


1. Take the various spheres of life in which you consume and compile a list of your top ‘wants’ and ‘shoulds’ in each category. Include such areas as groceries; entertainment; electronics; hobbies; sports; tools; appliances; gardens/lawns; interior design; furniture; automobiles; vacation; and music.

2. To what extent are your ‘wants’ and ‘shoulds’ similar to or different from the lists compiled by your friends? What does this suggest?

3. Do you believe Milkman’s findings are true of you? Why or why not?

4. Discuss the various practical suggestions Milkman and the Heaths made in response to these findings. How do you respond to each?

5. Many conservatives would argue that the business suggestions made in this piece are inappropriate. A business should offer commodities or services its consumers want, not try to get involved in helping consumers determine what they should get instead. After all, as conservatives never tire of saying, private citizens know best how to spend their own money. How would you respond?

6. Many progressives would argue that it might be appropriate for government to get involved. Milkman’s research proves that people often don’t make wise choices, so using zoning laws to limit access to unhealthy fast food joints or to raise taxes on gasoline to decrease air pollution can produce a healthier nation. After all, as progressives never tire of saying, the smoking ban saves thousands of lives each year. How would you respond?

7. To what extent does Milkman’s findings matter in the cosmic scheme of things? It could be argued that there is enough to worry about in life without adding ‘wants’ and ‘shoulds’ to the list. How would you respond?

8. How do ‘wants’ and ‘shoulds’ intersect with a biblical understanding of living faithfully as a Christian in a fallen world? What do the Scriptures say about consumption? How often is this topic thoughtfully addressed in the church?

9. At what point(s) do ‘wants’ become sinful or wrong? How do you know?

10. Would it be appropriate for Christians to find ways to be accountable to one another in their consumption of wants and shoulds? What must their community be like for such accountability to be biblically appropriate? How can this be kept from becoming a form of legalism or a subtly destructive ‘measure’ of spirituality?


Dave Barry online (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Dave_Barry)
“Sell Handcuffs: Why customers will pay you to restrain them” by Dan Heath and Chip Heath in their “Made to Stick” column in Fast Company (April 2009) pp. 52-53.