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Life is full of temptations. Like this slice of chocolate cake while I’m on my New Year’s resolution diet, temptations have strong hedonic and motivational value. They make us feel good now. We desire them.

The remedy to temptation?...self-control...at least that’s what is commonly argued as the “cure-all” in all sorts of self-help books and even in the research literature. However, in their paper “What’s so great about self-control?” researchers Marina Milyavskaya (Carleton University, Ottawa) and Michael Inzlicht (University of Toronto) argue that self-control is not a good predictor of long-term goal attainment.

Their study involved real-world sampling of 159 undergrads over a week. These participants used their smartphones to provide information 6 times a day about their goals, temptations, effortful self-control and feelings of depletion. Prior to this experience-sampling procedure, they had completed a personality assessment and a measure of trait self-control. At the end of the semester and well after the experience-sampling data collection, the participants provided information about their goal progress/attainment.  These data provided a snapshot of the students’ lives in terms of their goal pursuit, the temptations they were experiencing that conflicted with their goals, as well as their exertion of self-control in an effort to self-regulate.

Their results were surprising given how often self-control is discussed as a key success factor in goal pursuit. Milyavskaya and Inzlicht found that goal attainment was related to the experience of temptations rather than to actively resisting or controlling those temptations. In addition, their statistical model of the data revealed that not only are temptations related to lower goal attainment, but these temptations lead to feeling depleted, and this depletion actually mediates the relation between temptations and goal attainment.

In other words, not only do more temptations undermine our ability to stay on track with our goals and make progress, these temptations wear us down psychologically, leaving us feeling depleted. This depletion further undermines our goal progress and attainment.

The main conclusion from their study was that “. . . the path to better self-regulation lies not in increasing self-control but in removing temptations in our environments” (p. 609).

No wonder every nutritionist I know counsels us to get snacks out of the house if our diet goal is to eat more healthily. Fewer temptations, the better the chance of goal attainment.

Now, if I could only get that cake out of the house. Maybe tomorrow.

References

Milyavskaya, M., & Inzlicht, M. (2017). What’s so great about self-control? Examining the importance of effortful self-control and temptation in predicting real-life depletion and goal attainment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8(6), 603-611. Read the paper here.

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