Using Self-Control Strategies to Resist Temptations
We experience desires all the time—right now you may be craving a chocolate bar, longingly think about taking a nap, or feeling the urge to sneak a glance at your phone. Most of the time these desires are not bad for us. But what about those times when they are? What can we do to successfully resist them?
in psychology found that people regularly experience desires throughout the day. Some of these desires are not bad for us—eating a meal when hungry, drinking coffee, or calling a friend are all desires that can be good for us. But acting on other desires can get us into trouble. So people spend a lot of their lives trying to resist these desires. This kind of trying has been called self-control.
So how do people overcome these temptations? Do they simply say no, or use their willpower? Are there strategies that are particularly useful for resisting desires? My colleagues and I examined this question.
Over 200 participants (mostly undergraduate students) reported on their desires and how they handled them. We sent surveys to their phone at 7 random times per day, for an entire week. In each survey, participants first reported whether they were currently experiencing a desire or had experienced one in the past 30 minutes. We obtained over 4400 reports of desires. When they reported a desire, participants were asked if they had the opportunity to give in to their desire, and if so whether they tried to resist it. When people reported that they tried to resist a desire, they were asked about the strategies that they used (if any). The options were:
- I removed myself from the situation
- I distracted myself
- I reminded myself of my goals
- I promised myself I could give in later
- I reminded myself of why it was bad for me
- I just used willpower/simply resisted
We found that people reported desires on approximately 65% of the signals. When there was an opportunity to satisfy the desire, people usually did so, even for those desires that they tried to resist. Despite trying to resist those desires, they gave in to them over 50% of the time. But for a third of the desires, people did not have an opportunity to act on these desires. Sometimes this happened because they set up their environment in such a way that giving in to the desire was impossible. This can be a very effective strategy—if you do not want to eat chocolate then do not keep it in your house. If you are studying (or reading to your 5-year-old) and do not want to be distracted by text messages and Twitter, then leave your cell phone turned off or in a different part of the house.
But what about when people had the opportunity to satisfy their desire? In such cases, those in our study were more likely to resist successfully when they used any one of the strategies. All the strategies were similarly effective, and much more effective than not using any strategies. What helped most, though, was using multiple strategies. For each additional strategy used, people were 2.3 times more likely to successfully resist the desire!
We also looked at the different strategies that people used for different types of desire—people do have preferences. For example, reminding themselves of why the temptation was bad for them was used most when resisting food or drink, but that strategy was less likely to be used when resisting a work-related desire (yes, people do experience the desire to work!). But with few exceptions, most of the strategies were similarly effective for different types of desires.
Overall, our research suggests that what may be most useful is having a “toolbox” of strategies that can work well. Different situations may indeed require different strategies, but this could differ from person to person, and from situation to situation. Having a few different strategies up your sleeve, and using a few of them at the same time, may be especially helpful.
For Further Reading
Milyavskaya, M., Saunders, B., & Inzlicht, M. (2020). Self-control in daily life: Prevalence and effectiveness of diverse self-control strategies. Journal of Personality, Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12604
Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R. F., Förster, G., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Everyday temptations: An experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1318-1335. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026545
Duckworth, A. L., Milkman, K. L., & Laibson, D. (2018). Beyond willpower: Strategies for reducing failures of self-control. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19, 102-129. https://doi: 10.1177/1529100618821893
Marina Milyavskaya is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton university, in Ottawa, Canada. She studies how people set and pursue goals in their day-to-day lives.