Usually, willpower is regarded as a positive attribute; a measure of good character and resolve. When we lack it, things like quitting smoking seem so much harder, and I suspect that willpower was the essential and ultimately missing ingredient required for those fledgling New Year resolutions, which no doubt you too have already unceremoniously abandoned. But a recent study carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Chicago has revealed that resisting desires can be destructive rather than helpful. Its results suggest that by exerting self control, a person’s mental energy is drained and subsequent desires which are inevitably encountered feel more compelling and thus more difficult to resist.
At the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology on January 28th, psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago reported the results of their study investigating the effects of exerting self-control in order to resist desires. The study involved 205 adult participants aged between 18 and 85 in the German city Würzburg, each given communication devices by the researchers in order to maintain continuous contact. The volunteers were prompted seven times a day over 14 hours for a period of seven consecutive days to report back on their experiences of desire. They would then report whether they were experiencing temptation at that moment, or within the past half hour, what kind of desire they felt, how strong it was, whether it conflicted with other desires and whether they resisted or submitted to the temptation. 10,558 responses were collected, and of these responses 7,827 were reported as ‘desire episodes’.
Unsurprisingly, desires for food, sleep and sex were measured to be most intense. Desire for coffee, alcohol and cigarettes were reported as relatively low. The highest rates of ‘self-control failure’ occurred with urges associated with media technology: for example the temptations of checking emails, updating Twitter and going on Facebook were most often succumbed to on a daily basis. Hoffman offered his opinion on this result, saying “Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist.” In other words, there does not seem to be any direct downside to media use, and these days a quick peek at a smartphone is more convenient than finding somewhere to light up a cigarette. The issue is when a ‘quick peek’ at Facebook or emails becomes an hour or more trapped in the social networking wormhole.
On the whole, most self-reported desires did not become problematic for participants: when desires conflicted with other goals and thus required self-control, willpower failed on average only 17% of the time. The study also found that willpower fluctuates throughout the day, rather than being a constant personality trait. Furthermore, participants were not able to identify when their desires had ebbed, nor were they aware of when their willpower was decreased. The co-author of the study and psychologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Roy Baumeister explains: “There appears to be no signature feeling of when willpower is low.” Specifically, his work has found that fatigue alone does not explain for the depletion of resistance.
Interestingly, it was found that acts of self-control made ensuing desires more difficult to resist. After resisting one or more urges, the participants’ average rate of succumbing to new temptations rose from 15% early in the day to 37% towards the end of the day. Baumeister concluded that “Prior resistance makes new desires seem stronger than usual” reflecting the binge culture we’ve become accustomed to. Hoffman proposed that this likely applies to people everywhere, not only in Würzburg. The people who were best able to resist temptation were discovered to be those who found ways of steering clear of enticements altogether, so that they rarely needed to resort to self control.
So is it time to lock away our iPhones, only buy boring, un-enticing food for our cupboards, and cross to the opposite side of the street when we see someone attractive? Avoiding temptation entirely may be the most effective means of resistance, but boy does that make life sound boring. As much as it might not be good for me, I think I’ll keep my cookie jar fully stocked for now!
Image credit – Wikimedia Commons