Willpower and Temptation

An old solution to the problem of temptation.

Posted Oct 21, 2011

There are many possible answers to why we fail to resist temptation in our lives, but one of those answers is that we are not exercising self-control. Is this too simplistic? Given recent findings in psychology and some ancient philosophical thought, simple or not, for many people this is the key.

In the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney discuss some of the psychological research related to the virtue of self-control. The book kicks off with the claim that research shows two qualities are consistently good predictors of success in achieving one's goals in life: intelligence and self-control. We may not be able to significantly increase our intelligence, but we can increase our capacity for self-control.

The book discusses the muscle model of self-control. Each of us have a finite amount of willpower, which depletes as we use it. Also, we use the same stock of willpower for many tasks. So, if I use up most of my willpower during the day at work, I may have less self-control at night and be impatient with my spouse and kids. This is the downside. Like a muscle, exertion results in fatigue. However, over the long-term, a muscle that is consistently exercised increases in stamina and power. Fortunately, the same is true of self-control.

There are many helpful bits of advice in this book for those who want to grow in this area of life. Our capacity for self-control is benefitted by glucose, by setting clear and realistic goals, by monitoring our progress towards those goals, and sharing our successes and setbacks with others. When we exercise self-control, over time our willpower can increase in both stamina and power. This is good news.

One way to cultivate self-control in life is to regularly exercise. In one longitudinal study, individuals who began an exercise program increased their self-control over a two month period. They watched less television, smoked fewer cigarettes, consumed less alcohol, caffeine, and junk food, engaged in less impulsive spending and overspending, and procrastinated less. In addition, they studied more, were more faithful in keeping their commitments, and reported an increase in their emotional control. The participants exhibited better self-control in behaviors that are both related and unrelated to exercise, as well as their performance on a self-control task in the laboratory. The findings of this study "...suggest that our regulatory 'stock' is not set; it can be increased by a number of behaviors."*

I've found this to be true in my own life. When I exercise regularly I'm better able to exercise self-control in other areas of life. I would add that one key to all of this is that we must intend to actually change our behaviors. Without a genuine choice to cultivate and exercise self-control, our resistance to temptation will be futile.

Finally, consider the wise words of Aristotle as it relates to all of this:  "...we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions (Nicomachean Ethics 1129a-1137b)." Practice doesn't make perfect, but it can make us better at resisting temptation and becoming the kind of people we want and ought to be.

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* Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, "Longitudinal Gains in Self-Regulation from Regular Physical Exercise," British Journal of Health Psychology 11 (2006): 717-733.