Giving in to Feel Good: Why Self-regulation Fails
Focusing on regulating mood can lead to self-control failure in other areas.
Posted April 25, 2008
We give in to feel good. Give in to what? Food, shopping, drinking, smoking, gambling, and, you guessed it, procrastination. The problem is that focusing on regulating our moods and feelings can lead to self-control failure in other areas.
"Giving in to feel good" is the first part of the title of an important paper written by Dianne Tice and Ellen Bratslavsky (complete reference below). Anyone interested in knowing more about issues of the self and self-regulation should search out resources, and there are plenty, written by Dianne Tice or Roy Baumeister, or their students. I have quoted Roy's work before, and I will again given his prolific prominence as a psychologist.
Procrastinators will tell you that the task they're facing (avoiding) is difficult, and it creates bad feelings like anxiety or general emotional distress. Putting off the task at hand is an effective way of regulating this mood. Avoid the task, avoid the bad mood. This is what Tice and Bratslavsky refer to as "giving in to feel good." We give in to the impulse to walk away in order to feel good right now. Learning theorists would even add that we have now reinforced this behavior as the decrease in anxiety is rewarding.
Of course, this short-term strategy has long-term costs. The last-minute efforts that become necessary when we put off the task usually mean a sub-standard job overall (although not always, and this is a classic reward to the procrastinator and very memorable). More importantly, as Tice and Bratslavsky explain, "the final and overall level of negative affect is likely to be even greater than if the person has worked on the task all along" (p. 152). We actually feel worse later!
In fact, earlier research conducted by Tice & Baumeister across two academic terms demonstrated that procrastination caught up to students in the second term. Whereas in the first term, the non-procrastinators were more stressed, by second term the costs of procrastination became obvious for the procrastinators in terms of course performance, stress and illness.
The message of their research is clear. Putting off a task to control immediate mood results in problems later. They demonstrate this across a number of domains as I noted earlier, including eating, drinking, smoking, gambling, shopping and procrastination. When we give primacy to addressing our emotional distress, we usually do so at the cost of self-regulatory failure. They summarize this key idea with,
"People will engage in behaviors that may be self-destructive (gambling, excessive shopping, overeating, smoking, procrastinating) if the behaviors make them feel better in the short term. Thus, emotion regulation may have a special place in the field of self-control, because emotion regulation takes precedence over other self-control behaviors and even undermines other self-control efforts" (p. 154).
The message to each of us should be clear as well. If we focus on our feelings in the short term, we'll undermine ourselves in the long run.
I've been teaching my 3-year-old daughter this. A typical "lesson" goes something like this.
Me: "Sweetie, it's time to pick up your toys before we go."
[Mood now visibly changing.]
L: "I don't feel like it. I don't want to."
Me: "Sweetie, according to Dianne Tice and Ellen Bratslavsky it's not the best strategy to focus on your feelings now, it's . . . sweetie?? Where are you?"
Ok, so it is about delay of gratification, and we do (should) learn this early in life. But, the evidence seems to show that we all can (and do) act like 3-year-olds at times.
In fact, we may spend a lifetime acting like a 3-year-old, and rationalizing it to ourselves the whole time. I don't feel like it. I need to feel better in order to act. First, I need to feel better.
No you don't.
In fact, your feelings will follow your behaviors. Progress on that task will improve your mood.
For example, new research where introverts are instructed to act extraverted shows that the introverts who act extraverted also feel happier (an affective advantage of extraverts). We'll talk about this more in the near future.
For now, the message is, don't give in to feeling good, get going instead - don't delay!
Tice, D.M., & Bratslavsky, E. (2000). Giving in to feel good: The place of emotion regulation in the context of general self-control. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 149-159.