With New Year’s comes the season when self-control is often most sorely tested. You make those earnest resolutions for self-improvement–but how well and how long do you keep them?
This time around, new research by a psychology team at Florida State University may help you stick to your convictions.
Traditionally, the researchers point out, we think of effective self-control as the “keen ability” to resist impulses and desires that can undermine determination. These may include desires to smoke, drink, overeat, and indulge other negative habits commonly associated with New Year’s resolutions.
Resistance is certainly important in eliminating undesirable behavior, the researchers say, but an even more important key to successful self-control may be a deliberate strategy of “avoiding, rather than merely resisting, temptation.”
Reporting a series of self-control experiments in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, lead author Dr. Michael Ent writes: “Attempting to resist impulses as they arise (rather than avoiding such impulses) may be a relatively ineffective self-regulatory strategy.”
He explains that evidence suggests that “each person’s capacity for self-regulation fluctuates” because each act of resistance expends some of this limited resource, “so that one’s willpower occasionally becomes depleted….
“[I]f people rely solely on their willpower to resist temptation, they are likely to fail periodically…because some temptations will be encountered when one’s powers of resistance are low.”
You might think that people who are good at self-control “enjoy the advantage of being able to resist problematic impulses frequently and effectively,” Ent writes. But in fact these superior controllers appear to better preserve their capacity for self-regulation because they proactively and systematically avoid circumstances that present temptations and goal-distractions rather than relying on resistance to overcome them.
They actually resist impulses less frequently than others because they confront the need to do so less often and their resistance capacity remains “invulnerable to depletion.”
In experiments, participants were given a choice of environments in which to perform certain mentally challenging tasks. Subjects who had previously tested low on self-control tended to chose settings in which their concentration was threatened by attractive auditory and visual distractions, while the best self-controllers chose surroundings that were less intriguing but where they could focus much more easily on the assigned tasks.
“Even though people high in self-control are adept at overcoming temptation,” they make a habit of “avoid[ing] circumstances in which they would be forced to do so,” Ent writes.
“Apparently and perhaps unfortunately,” the researchers note, “it takes good self-control in order to use the strategy of avoiding temptation and distraction.” Avoiding temptation requires “forethought, effective anticipation, and self-knowledge.” But if you are able to use it, “it may be one key ingredient that contributes to the broad range of superior outcomes associated with good self-control.”
A free abstract and a link for purchasing access to a full copy of the study, titled “Trait self-control and the avoidance of temptation,” are available by clicking here.