Forget Willpower: A Smarter Strategy to Resist Temptation
A science-backed, and seasonally appropriate, method to resist temptation.
Posted Nov 24, 2015
According to some very smart people, willpower is the key to success. Inevitably they cite Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow study from the 1960s. In the study, young children were given a choice—they could either eat one marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. Some gobbled up the marshmallow as soon as it was put in front of them but most did their best to resist temptation so they could have two.
The follow-up study 40 years later dramatically changed the conversation about what it takes to succeed in life. Published in Psychological Science, the researchers revealed eye-opening data about the adult lives of the marshmallow-munching kids. Those who were able to delay gratification and wait 15 minutes for the greater reward went on to have more success in high school, higher SAT sores, better grades in college, better jobs, better relationships and were even in better physical shape than those who couldn’t wait.
As a result, policy makers, educators, psychologists and parents have all jumped on the self-control bandwagon. They are convinced that the key to self-control is learning how to overcome emotion. Recommended strategies include distraction and distancing, as highlighted in an article in the New York Times:
"Don’t eye the basket of bread; just take it off the table. In moments of emotional distress, imagine that you’re viewing yourself from outside, or consider what someone else would do in your place. When a waiter offers chocolate mousse, imagine that a cockroach has just crawled across it."
While these strategies can be effective, they are not fool proof. Genetics, environment, stress and fatigue among other factors play a role in the ability to resist temptation. Moreover, most experts agree that willpower is in finite supply. It’s the reason you can bypass the candy aisle at the grocery store but can’t resist buying a pack of M&M's when you reach the strategically placed gauntlet of tempting treats at the checkout counter.
The thing is, it takes a great deal of energy and effort to combat “hot” emotional impulses with cognitive cool thinking. Plus, suppressing emotions is stressful and takes a toll physically and emotionally.
So, what else can we do? With all the focus on strategies to resist the proverbial marshmallow, we may have been missing something right under our noses. David Desteno, Ph.D., author and professor of psychology at Northeastern University, proposes a counter-intuitive approach to building self-control. Instead of demonizing emotion, he argues that some emotional responses may be the most powerful weapons we have against temptation. According to his research, socially oriented emotions like gratitude, love and compassion greatly enhance self-control and facilitate delayed gratification.
As he writes in Pacific Standard:
"…there are two routes to self-control: cognitive strategies that depend on executive function, willpower, and the like; and emotional strategies that rely on the cultivation of specific feelings…You might prevent yourself from making an impulse purchase by placing your money in an account with stiff penalties for early withdrawal…Or you might do the same by taking a few minutes to stop and count your blessings."
Other research supports this approach. Kurt Gray, a researcher at Harvard University, found that when people donated money to charity or thought about helping another person they were able to hold up weights longer than those who didn’t engage in pro-social thoughts or actions. According to Gray, helping others heightens willpower and self-control. As he suggests:
"Perhaps the best way to resist the donuts at work is to donate your change in the morning to a worthy cause."
By doing good and by cultivating positive emotions, we inoculate ourselves against temptation and immediate gratification. As Dr. DeSteno concludes:
"We can’t just exert self-control by willing ourselves to resist the first marshmallow or averting our eyes from it; we have to be grateful that someone’s offering it to us in the first place."