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When Willpower Fails: How to Build Your Resistance to Temptation

7 ways to resist the 7 deadly sins

The seven deadly sins- ranging from gluttony to greed- are the universal symbols of temptation. Although we know they're sins, it's sometimes impossible not to give in to them. Ironically, although religious worship is meant to be at the heart of the holiday season, it's precisely the lures of the season that so often get us into trouble. New Year's resolutions are meant to cleanse the soul of our holiday indiscretions though even the best intentioned of these are short-lived. As the saying goes, the "spirit is willing but the body is weak." How can you get your body to be more willing to obey your spirit?

As it turns out, we can bolster our resolve to avoid temptation by building our mental muscle. According to the "strength model" proposed by Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, we have a finite amount of self-control. The self can exert control over the self, but only to a limited degree. The stronger our self-control, the stronger our ability to resist temptation.

If we have self-control, why don't we use it, or at least use it more effectively? According to Baumeister and the many colleagues he has worked with over the years, our self-control can be sapped by overuse (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011). We fall prey to temptation due to "ego depletion" as our tank of self-control goes from full to empty. The harder you work to suppress one set of desires, the less likely it is you'll succeed at suppressing another set. Resisting one temptation leads your ego, the seat of your rational thoughts, to become depleted and therefore be unable to resist the next temptation to come your way. Like a fatigued muscle, your self-control becomes worn out and unable to do its job. Refraining from sin #1, in other words, makes you more likely to engage in sin #2.

There is a large body of research to support strength theory, as shown in a paper published in the prestigious Psychological Bulletin in 2010 by University of Nottingham researcher Martin Hagger and colleagues. I came across this literature when I came across a perplexing finding in an informal survey I conducted of undergraduates taking my Psychology of Aging course. Because I emphasize prevention in this course, I was interested in learning about the health-related behaviors of my students such as how much they exercise, control their intake of high fat foods, smoke, and drink alcohol. Much to my surprise, it was the students who exercised the most who also drank alcohol most heavily. In a previous blog posting, I wrote about this finding and am continuing to gather data through a link to my online survey. Through the online survey, I've also found out that this is not just a college student quirk. Anyone can fall victim to the "I drink therefore I exercise" principle.

In the typical test of ego depletion, known as the "dual-task paradigm," the researcher assigns two tasks to the experimental group. The first task is highly ego depleting, leaving participants more likely to lose their stamina in the second task. In one experiment, participants suppress their emotions while they watch a highly emotion-arousing video such as the heart-wrenching Terms of Endearment. For the second task, participants are required to hold a spring-loaded handgrip until they can no longer grasp it. Invariably, participants in the experimental condition, forced to hold back their tears during the video, have less handgrip strength. Presumably, suppressing their emotions tapped dry their emotional and physical reserves.

Translating ego depletion to everyday life means that if you behave your inner angel in one situation, your inner devil will take over in the next. For example, at a holiday party, if you deplete your self-control in one area (such as resisting a tray of attractive cookies), you'll be more likely to slip in another area (such as not flirting with someone you should not flirt with).

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, another group of researchers questioned some of the assertions of Baumeister's strength theory by positing that willpower is enough to bolster our weak egos. According to the article by Greg Walton and Carol Dweck, if you want to overcome your urges, you can do so, just like the Little Engine That Could. Unfortunately, their critique honed in on one proposal of strength theory: that to boost your self-control, you need to ingest some glucose--"sugar power."

There is research showing that in some situations, a little bit of glucose can help people avoid ego depletion. However, Baumeister's theory gives us lots of other ways to shore up our inner resolve than simply taking a spoonful or more of sugar. If Walton and Dweck were correct, then all it would take to cure the world of its problems would be the will to do so. Clearly, this isn't the case, or we wouldn't have high rates of addiction, crime, and the other sins that pervade our society. What's worse, telling yourself you have unlimited willpower may make you more likely to fail. In an email communication to me, Baumeister noted that some of his studies have shown that "people who had been induced to believe in unlimited willpower ... performed worse than others." Sad to say that willing temptation to go away will not make it go away but may make the tempation more tempting.

It's not easy to avoid temptation, especially if you've drained your self-control resources. However, the research by Hagger and his team suggests that these 7 strategies can work:

1. Practice self-control. Self-control is a skill you can learn, although it takes time. If you keep it up, your ability to resist temptation will gradually increase.

2. Take it one day at a time. Thinking about controlling yourself in the future will only deplete your ego even more. Don't worry about what you have to do tomorrow if you have trouble controlling yourself today.

3. Keep your eyes on the prize. Maintain your motivation to achieve the goals you desire. This won't be enough to vanquish all temptation, but it will help temper it.

4. Reward yourself for good behavior. Incentives can help you boost your motivation and help you keep your eyes on that all-important prize, bolstering strategy #3.

5. Avoid fatigue. Ego depletion rests on the idea that you are least likely to control yourself when you're tired. Sleep can give you the mental energy you need to keep control over your impulses.

6. Tell yourself you can do it. The jury is out on whether this is an effective strategy, but boosting your self-confidence can't hurt, especially when you combine this method with the others.

7. Put on a happy face. People feel bad in a state of ego depletion and this negative affect can undermine their further efforts at self-control. We don't like ourselves when we fail. Although being in a good mood doesn't necessarily outweigh the effects of ego depletion, being in a bad mood can make you more prone to giving in to temptation.

In the case of self-control, a little bit of knowledge is a powerful thing. Once you realize the universality of ego depletion, you'll be better able to recognize it in yourself. From then on, the choice of whether or not to resist temptation is up to you but with a little effort, your inner angel will prevail.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging and please check out my website, where you can read this week's Weekly Focus to get additional information on personality, self-tests, and psychology-related links.

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.


Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin.

Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. D. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(4), 495-525. doi:10.1037/a0019486

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