The Myth of Self Control
As the Bible tells it, the first crime committed was a lapse of self-control. Eve was forbidden from tasting the fruit on the tree of knowledge. But the temptation was too much. The fruit was just so “pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom,” Genesis reads. Who wouldn’t want that? Humanity was just days old, but already we were succumbing to a vice.
The takeaway from this story was clear: when temptation overcomes willpower, it’s a moral failing, worthy of punishment.
Modern-day psychologists might not blame Eve for her errant ways at all. Because what’s true today was also true at the beginning of time (regardless of what story you believe in): Human beings are horrible at resisting temptation.
“Effortful restraint, where you are fighting yourself — the benefits of that are overhyped,”
Kentaro Fujita, a psychologist who studies self-control at the Ohio State University, says.
He’s not the only one who thinks so. Several researchers I spoke to are making a strong case that we shouldn’t feel so bad when we fall for temptations.
Indeed, studies have found that trying to teach people to resist temptation either only has short-term gains or can be an outright failure. “We don’t seem to be all that good at [self-control],” Brian Galla, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, says.
The implications of this are huge: If we accept that brute willpower doesn’t work, we can feel less bad about ourselves when we succumb to temptation. And we might also be able refocus our efforts on solving problems like obesity.
A recent national survey from the University of Chicago finds that 75 percent of Americans say a lack of willpower is a barrier to weight loss. And yet the emerging scientific consensus is that the obesity crisis is the result of a number of factors, including genes and the food environment — and, crucially, not a lack of willpower.
If we could stop worshiping self-control, maybe we could start thinking about diluting the power of temptation — and helping people meet their goals in new ways with less effort.
The case against willpower
Many of us assume that if we want to make big changes in our lives, we have to sweat for it.
But if, for example, the change is to eat fewer sweets, and then you find yourself in front of a pile of cookies, researchers say the pile of cookies has already won.
“Our prototypical model of self-control is angel on one side and devil on the other, and they battle it out,” Fujita says. “We tend to think of people with strong willpower as people who are able to fight this battle effectively.
Actually, the people who are really good at self-control never have these battles in the first place.”
This idea was crystallized in the results of a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study tracked 205 people for one week in Germany. The study participants were given BlackBerrys that would go off at random, asking them questions about what desires, temptations, and self-control they were experiencing in the moment.
The paper stumbled on a paradox: The people who were the best at self-control — the ones who most readily agreed to survey questions like “I am good at resisting temptations” — reported fewer temptations throughout the study period.
To put it more simply: The people who said they excel at self-control were hardly using it at all.
Psychologists Marina Milyavskaya and Michael Inzlicht recently confirmed and expanded on this idea. In their study, they monitored 159 students at McGill University in Canada in a similar manner for a week.
If resisting temptation is a virtue, then more resistance should lead to greater achievement, right? That’s not what the results, pending publication in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, found.
The students who exerted more self-control were not more successful in accomplishing their goals. It was the students who experienced fewer temptations overall who were more successful when the researchers checked back in at the end of the semester. What’s more, the people who exercised more effortful self-control also reported feeling more depleted. So not only were they not meeting their goals, they were also exhausted from trying.
“There’s a strong assumption still that exerting self-control is beneficial,” Milyavskaya, a professor at Carleton University, tells me. “And we’re showing in the long term, it’s not.”
What we can learn from people who are good at self-control
So who are these people who are rarely tested by temptations? And what can we learn from them? There are a few overlapping lessons from this new science:
1) People who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities some of us resist — like eating healthy, studying, or exercising.
So engaging in these activities isn’t a chore for them. It’s fun.
“‘Want-to’ goals are more likely to be obtained than ‘have-to’ goals,” Milyavskaya says. “Want-to goals lead to experiences of fewer temptations. It’s easier to pursue those goals. It feels more effortless.”
If you’re running because you “have to” get in shape, but find running to be a miserable activity, you’re probably not going to keep it up. That means than an activity you like is more likely to be repeated than an activity you hate.
2) People who are good at self-control have learned better habits
In 2015, psychologists Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, finding across six studies and more than 2,000 participants that people who are good at self-control also tend to have good habits — like exercising regularly, eating healthy, sleeping well, and studying.
“People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” Galla tells me.
And structuring your life is a skill. People who do the same activity — like running or meditating — at the same time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, he says. Not because of their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.
A trick to wake up more quickly in the morning is to set the alarm on the other side of the room. That’s not in-the-moment willpower at play. It’s planning.
This theory harks back to one of the classic studies on self-control: Walter Mischel’s “marshmallow test,” conducted in the 1960s and ’70s. In these tests, kids were told they could either eat one marshmallow sitting in front of them immediately or eat two later. The ability to resist was found to correlate with all sorts of positive life outcomes, like SAT scores and BMIs. But the kids who were best at the test weren’t necessarily intrinsically better at resisting temptation. They might have been employing a critical strategy.
“Mischel has consistently found that the crucial factor in delaying gratification is the ability to change your perception of the object or action you want to resist,” the New Yorker reported in 2014. That means kids who avoided eating the first marshmallow would find ways not to look at the candy, or imagine it as something else.
“The really good dieter wouldn’t buy a cupcake,” Fujita explains. “They wouldn’t have passed in front of a bakery; when they saw the cupcake, they would have figured out a way to say yuck instead of yum; they might have an automatic reaction of moving away instead of moving close.”
3) Some people just experience fewer temptations
Our dispositions are determined in part by our genetics. Some people are hungrier than others. Some people love gambling and shopping. People high in conscientiousness — a personality trait largely set by genetics — tend to be more vigilant students and tend to be healthier. When it comes to self-control, they won the genetic lottery.
4) It’s easier to have self-control when you’re wealthy
When Mischel’s marshmallow test is repeated on poorer kids, there’s a clear trend: They perform worse, and appear less able to resist the treat in front of them.
But there’s a good reason for this. As University of Oregon neuroscientist Elliot Berkman argues, people who grow up in poverty are more likely to focus on immediate rewards than long-term rewards. Because when you’re poor, the future is less certain.
Researchers want to figure out if self-control could feel effortless
The new research on self-control demonstrates that eating an extra slice of cake isn’t a moral failing. It’s what we ought to expect when a hungry person is in front of a slice of cake. “Self-control isn’t a special moral muscle,” Galla says. It’s like any decision. And to improve the decision, we need to improve the environment, and give people the skills needed to avoid cake in the first place.
“There are many ways of achieving successful self-control, and we’ve really only been looking at one of them,” which is effortful restraint, Berkman tells me. The previous leading theory on willpower, called ego depletion, has recently come under intense scrutiny for not replicating.
(Berkman argues that the term “self-control” ought to be abolished altogether. “It’s no different than any other decision making,” he says.)
The new research isn’t yet conclusive on whether it’s really possible to teach people the skills needed to make self-control feel effortless. More work needs to be done — designing interventions and evaluating their outcomes over time. But it at least gives researchers a fresh perspective to test out new solutions.
In Berkman’s lab, he’s testing out an idea called “motivational boost.” Participants write essays explaining how their goals (like losing weight) fit into their core values. Berkman will periodically text study participants to remind them why their goals matter, which may increase motivation. “We are still gathering data, but I cannot say yet whether it works or not,” he says.
Another intriguing idea is called “temptation bundling,” in which people make activities more enjoyable by adding a fun component to them. One paper showed that participants were more likely to work out when they could listen to an audio copy of The Hunger Games while at the gym.
Researchers are excited about their new perspective on self-control. “It’s exciting because we’re maybe [about to] break through on a whole variety of new strategies and interventions that we would have never thought about,” Galla says. He and others are looking beyond the “just say no” approach of the past to boost motivation with the help of smartphone apps and other technology.
This is not to say all effortful restraint is useless, but rather that it should be seen as a last-ditch effort to save ourselves from bad behavior.
“Because even if the angel loses most of the time, there’s a chance every now and again the angel will win,” Fujita says. “It’s a defense of last resort.”