Avoid Temptation and You’ll Succeed!

March 16, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
image avoiding temptation

Remove All Temptation to Focus

Willpower is what makes for success. The focussed determination to follow the path, make the right choices, never deviate.

But that’s not quite so according to a new study that’s currently in press at Social Psychological and Personality Science and reported on in the BPS Research Digest by Christian Jarrett.

Apparently, achieving your goals is not about self-control but about avoiding temptation.

Jarrett comments that there’s been plenty of research on self-control that has been carried in the lab but very little in normal everyday life but that one of the most consistent findings is that the more of it you use self-control in one situation, the less you have left over to resist other temptations although this idea that it’s a finite resource has been challenged.
In this post, Jarrett reports on a study carried out by Marina Milyavskaya at Carleton University and Michael Inzlicht at the University of Toronto which followed the lives of 159 university students in detail for one week.

At the outset of the study, the students completed some personality and trait self-control measures, and listed four personal goals (such as “learn French” and “improve my health”) and then three weeks later started a week of intense record-keeping. During the week, the students were pinged at random times and asked to report any temptations, whether these conflicted with their goals, whether they had exercised willpower to resist the temptation(s), and how depleted or mentally exhausted they were feeling in that moment. At the end of each day that week, Jarrett says, they also completed a diary about how mentally exhausted or energised they had felt during that day. Finally, the researchers caught up with the students again to find out how much progress they’d made on their personal goals.

The findings

Those students who reported exercising more deliberate self-control through the main study week did not achieve any more progress on their goals than those who didn’t.

It was those students who reported having fewer temptations who achieved more goal success.  Those students who experienced more temptations reported feeling more mentally exhausted at night, whether or not they had tried to deliberately resist those temptations.

In turn, experiencing more mental exhaustion was inversely correlated with goal success. This connection between temptations and achievement seems to be explained by depletion or mental exhaustion.

The researchers summed their results up, thusly: “Against popular and scientific wisdom, effortful self-control did not appear to play a role in goal-pursuit, suggesting that the immediate positive consequences of exerting willpower do not translate into long-term goal success.”

So it seems that the key to successfully reaching our goals is to avoid temptation in the first place!

Jarrett does, however, offer some caveats.

The study was looked at in-the-moment acts of deliberate self-control, however the researchers did also measure the students’ trait self-control at the start.  Those students who reported being generally more self-disciplined tended to experience fewer temptations during the key study week. This suggests that self-control or willpower as a trait, rather than as an in-the-moment act, is relevant to goal success. He notes that the main results still held even after controlling for trait self-control (i.e. even students with high trait self-control tended to show the same pattern of more temptation equalling less goal attainment, with acts of willpower being irrelevant).

Of course, relying solely on the students’ self- reports of their experiences and goal attainment also means that there was plenty of subjectivity around.  That said, it’s good to see that this study brings the issues of self-control out of the lab and into the real world.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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