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When Do People Think Abstinence or Moderation Is Better?

How people view a conflict determines the strategy they use to resolve it.

Key points

  • Abstinence means avoiding a behavior and moderation means using a behavior sparingly.
  • People prefer abstinence when the goal conflict is seen as inherent in the goals.
  • People prefer moderation when the goal conflict is seen as a resource competition.
Generated with AI ∙ April 10, 2024 at 9:24 AM
Generated with AI ∙ April 10, 2024 at 9:24 AM

When advising about self-control, there are dueling approaches. On the one hand, so much advice focuses on moderation (engaging in bad behaviors sparingly) that it was ridiculed in the Oscar Wilde quote (“Everything in moderation, including moderation”). On the other hand, many approaches to self-control—particularly in the area of addiction—focus on abstinence. Avoiding a substance altogether is the cornerstone of 12-step programs like AA, for example.

A paper by Phuong Le, Abigail Scholer, and Kentaro Fujita in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that was first published online in 2024 explores this distinction. These researchers suggest that whether people think abstinence or moderation is better depends on how they think about the conflict between goals that leads to the dilemma.

One possibility is that people will think about a goal conflict as involving completely incompatible activities. For example, a college student might think that playing video games is completely incompatible with doing well in school so any amount of video game play would badly influence grades. For this student, abstaining from video games is likely the best strategy.

A second possibility is that people think about goal conflicts as involving a competition for resources. Another college student might think that playing video games soaks up time that could be used for studying, if studying requires time, then playing video games would be a bad idea. For this student, playing video games in moderation is likely the best strategy.

The researchers did several types of studies to support this view. In one set of studies, they defined two types of strategies for participants—abstinence versus a “balancing” strategy. Then, they had people read about particular self-control scenarios (like staying sober, working versus spending time with family, and quitting smoking versus hanging out with friends who are smokers).

In one study, the scenarios were selected to be ones that most people would see as incompatible goals versus resource dilemmas. For example, most people are likely to see sobriety as incompatible with drinking, but working and spending time for a resource dilemma. Using ratings, they confirmed how participants were viewing the scenarios. Participants were also asked the strategy (abstinence versus balancing) they would recommend for that goal conflict. People were more likely to recommend abstinence for incompatible conflicts than for resource dilemmas.

Other studies obtained a similar result with scenarios in which the goal conflict was described, and the instructions manipulated whether people were likely to view it as an incompatibility or a resource dilemma. In these studies, participants were once again more likely to recommend abstinence for goals seen as incompatible than for goals competing for a common resource.

Another study found that people can reason from the strategy people adopt to how they think about the conflict. In this study, participants heard about someone who had either adopted abstinence or balancing as a strategy. They had participants disclose the degree to which they thought this individual was thinking about the goal conflict as involving contradictory goals or situational resource competition. They were more likely to rate that a person thought the goals were incompatible when they chose abstinence than when they chose moderation.

Finally, the researchers engaged in a real-world exploration of this issue during the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants were asked whether they saw the likelihood of getting COVID as incompatible with socializing or as a more graded conflict. They had people rate their likelihood of participating in different social engagements. Participants were much more likely to abstain from social behavior when they saw COVID-19 as incompatible with social engagement than when they saw it as more situational.

These studies suggest that people associate goals that are incompatible with a strategy of abstinence and goals that compete for resources with a strategy of moderation. However, these studies do not explore which strategies are most effective in the long run. An important area for future research is to determine whether people who adopt a particular strategy for thinking about goals are more likely to be successful in the long run at achieving those goals. This work may also suggest different domains of experience in which the incompatibility/abstinence or resource-dilemma/moderation strategies are more likely to be effective.


Le, P. Q., Scholer, A. A., & Fujita, K. (2024). The role of conflict representation in abstinence versus moderation in self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

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