There are two kinds of dieters in this world. Those who see a piece of chocolate cake as a monumental hurdle to overcome, and those who see that same piece of chocolate cake as a reminder of their diet. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ones who see the cake as a reminder of their diet are more successful at keeping to their diet than those who see it as a hurdle.
Research by Ayelet Fishbach, Ron Friedman, and Arie Kruglanski in a 2003 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology first reported this difference between people who were successful and unsuccessful at satisfying their long-term goals. And not just with dieting. Students who are successful at getting their work done are reminded to study when temptations like parties and games come up; those who are not successful at getting their work done are derailed by such temptations.
Unfortunately, that study alone doesn't help us much. It does tell us that people who are successful have a connection between the temptation and the goal that is important to them. It doesn't tell us how to develop that connection.
A paper in the October 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Floor Kroese, Marieke Adriaanse, Catharine Evers, and Denise DeRidder fills this gap.
These researchers drew on Peter Gollwitzer's idea of an implementation intention. Gollwitzer's work suggests that if people make specific plans to help them satisfy a goal, then those intentions increase their success at satisfying the goal. A key part of an implementation intention is to foresee obstacles to the goal (like temptations). So, perhaps an implementation intention increases the strength of the relationship between the temptation and the goal.
To test this possibility, women were recruited to participate in a study of healthy eating habits. At the start of the study, the women were asked to name an unhealthy snack food that is tempting for them. The researchers measured whether the women were interested in dieting, and also whether they were successful at dieting. Half of the women were also asked to form a specific implementation intention: if they encountered their tempting food they would stick to their diet. This group repeated the implementation intention a few times. The other half did not form a specific implementation intention.
A week later, all of the women were asked to report how well they did in resisting their tempting food in the previous week.
The group that did not form an implementation intention generally acted as you would expect. Those people who reported being unsuccessful dieters generally gave in to their tempting food more often than those who reported being successful dieters.
The group that did form an implementation intention developed a more solid connection between the temptation and their goal. For this group, those people who are generally unsuccessful dieters actually gave in to their temptation somewhat less often than those who are generally successful dieters. That is, the specific implementation intention improved people's ability to resist their temptation by strengthening the connection between the temptation and the goal.
This study gives us all hope. If there is some temptation you are trying to resist, forming an implementation intention can help. The idea is to think specifically about your temptation and about the situation in which you are most likely to see it. Then, there are two things you can do. First, resolve to stick with your goal, even when you encounter the temptation. Second, make a specific plan to help you stick with your goal. In the case of a tempting piece of chocolate cake, for example, consider walking away from it. If you are at a restaurant, and someone else is eating the cake, think about getting a cup of coffee or a glass of water instead.
Give in to the temptation. Follow me on Twitter.
And while you're at it, resolve to check out my new book, Smart Thinking (Perigee Books) to be published in January, 2012.