A rich chocolate truffle like the one used as a temptation in this study.
January is the time of year when it really hits home how hard it is to deal with conflicting goals
. After all, most New Year's resolutions reflect that there is some long-term goal that is hard to achieve because there is some other short-term goal that stands in its way. Losing weight in the long term requires avoiding unhealthy (but usually really tasty) foods in the short term. Getting better grades in school in the long-term requires avoiding temptations like parties and video games in the short-term.
A paper by Juliano Laran and Chris Janiszewski in the April, 2009 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research explores two different ways that people deal with these kinds of goal conflicts. Their work suggests that there are two distinct systems that help you satisfy your goals.
The first is an effortful management system. In the effortful system your decisions about what actions to take depend on whether you are focused on your commitment to the goal or your progress toward completing the goal. Think about what happens when you are trying to decide whether to each healthy food or to indulge in a treat. If you commit to the goal of eating healthy food, then you will continue to eat healthy food whenever you think about the food you want to eat. If you focus on your progress, though, then you may sometimes choose the opposite goal. So, thinking that you have made a lot of progress toward healthy eating can give you permission to indulge every so often.
The second system is passive and has a different influence on behavior. In the passive system, if a goal is active, it drives you toward achieving the goal until you have satisfied the goal. Once the goal is achieved, another goal takes over as the active goal. So, if you have the goal to indulge, then you will continue to eat good tasting (though possibly unhealthy) foods until you feel like you have indulged enough. At that point, another goal (like being healthy) can become active and influence your behavior.
Laran and Janiszewski present 8 experiments that support the existence of these two modes of goal satisfaction. One particularly interesting study from this series explores the difference between people's behavior and their predictions for other people's behavior in a similar situation. The idea is that your own behavior is often driven by the passive system. However, when you make predictions for other people's behavior, you do so explicitly, and so you engage the effortful system.
In this study, people were shown a rich chocolate truffle. They were told either that they decided to eat it, or that they had decided not to eat it. Other studies demonstrated that the instruction that they decided to eat the truffle is enough to engage the goal to indulge, while the instruction that they decided not to eat the truffle was enough to engage the goal to regulate their own behavior.
A salad is an example of the healthy foods used in this study.
Later in this study, people rated the attractiveness of a number of foods, some of which were healthy foods that are not that tasty and others of which were tasty foods that are not healthy. Consistent with the idea that the passive system promotes the satisfaction of a goal, people with the goal to indulge rated the tasty foods as more attractive than the healthy foods. People with the goal to regulate their behavior rated the healthy foods as more attractive than the tasty foods.
A second set of participants did a similar study, only they were told about the behavior of a fictitious person (Mr. A). They were told that he had a rich chocolate truffle and he either decided to eat it (to engage in the goal to indulge) or not to eat it (to engage in the goal to regulate his behavior). After that, they were asked how attractive Mr. A would find the tasty and healthy foods.
This group showed a very different pattern of ratings. When told that Mr. A had decided to indulge in a truffle, they assumed he would find the healthy foods more attractive than the tasty foods. In contrast when told that Mr. A had decided not to eat the truffle, they assumed he would find the tasty foods more attractive than the healthy foods. That is, when thinking about the goals explicitly, they adopted a strategy of trading off. Indulging a bit should make other indulgences seem less attractive, but being virtuous made indulgences seem more attractive.
Ok. This is a complicated study. What do these two modes of goal pursuit mean for you?
A lot of people hold to the idea that a little treat can make it easier to avoid other treats in the future. That is, giving in to one indulgence may vaccinate you against other temptations. The results from this research suggest that this idea is true only when you are using effort to monitor your own behavior.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time our behavior is driven by factors we are not thinking about explicitly. In that case, the passive system is helping to drive our behavior. In this case, a small indulgence may backfire by activating the goal to indulge. The first indulgence may open the floodgates and lead to more unhealthy behavior later.
Ultimately, then, you probably need to hold the line and keep yourself from indulging in a short-term behavior unless you are certain that your behavior will be controlled by the effortful system.
No wonder it is so hard to stick with New Year's resolutions.
Resolve to keep up to date with what is happening in Psychology. Follow me on Twitter.