Are You Caving to a Craving?

Hijack your brain’s reward system to keep your New Year’s resolutions.

Posted Jan 06, 2016

It won’t be long before we find out whether we keep our New Year’s resolutions. Will we stick to our new exercise routine? Will we keep up our new diet regimen? Will we quit smoking for real this time? Only time will tell.

Most resolutions hit the dust heap by the end of January. Sore muscles, chocolate cravings, and nicotine withdrawal take their toll on our willpower, and we beat ourselves for our failures. Missing the mark on our stated goals can leave us feeling worse than before we started.

So why do we even engage in such self-defeating behaviors? Many of us view dashed New Year’s resolutions as failures to achieve our goals. But psychologists Catalina Kopetz and Edward Orehek take a different perspective. Instead, they view self-defeating behaviors as a kind of goal-directed action.

Every New Year’s resolution involves a choice. I may enjoy eating high-calorie foods, but I also want to maintain a healthy weight. I may want to binge-watch episodes of my favorite TV programs on Netflix, but I’d also like to have more muscle tone. I really like smoking, but I know the long-term health consequences are severe.

In Kopetz and Orehek’s view, making a New Year’s resolution isn’t about setting a goal, it’s about choosing between conflicting goals. Typically, this involves a choice between a short-term payoff and one that’s more long-term. In other words, you need to decide whether to feel good in the present, or good in the future.

From an evolutionary perspective, the immediate payoff is always the better option. In the wild, you never know where your next meal is coming from. So when food is plentiful, you should gorge yourself. Overeating is a noble goal in starvation conditions. Yet in modern society, where food is plentiful, we still eat each meal as if we may never eat again.

Modern society also provides us with all sorts of experiences that highjack our brain’s reward system. Drugs, TV, and videogames are all examples of modern artifacts that make us feel good in the short-term but can do great harm in the long-term. So the strategy of just going with whatever feels good, which served our ancestors so well, doesn’t work for us anymore.

To follow through with a New Year’s resolution, we need to keep our long-term goal clearly in mind: “I don’t want to be embarrassed on the beach this summer.” We also need to actively inhibit our short-term goals. “Yes, that chocolate cake will taste great in the moment. But in half an hour, I’ll feel bloated and I’ll be kicking myself for giving in.” The more we can downplay the benefits of the conflicting goal, the more likely we are to achieve our desired outcome.

Waking up with sore muscles often spells doom for a new exercise program. But some people manage to turn this vice into a virtue. “Oh man, I hurt this morning. I got in a really good workout yesterday.” Their aching muscles throughout the day serve as a personal affirmation and even encourage them to get back to the gym for another workout. Thus, a self-righteous attitude toward self-sacrifice can hijack the brain’s reward system just like a drug.

Perhaps you don’t buy the idea that “caving to a craving” is a kind of goal pursuit. But consider what goes through the mind of a smoker. Nowadays, all smokers know their habit is bad for their health. They smoke to achieve the goal of a pleasurable experience in the moment, often at considerable expense and effort.

Furthermore, smokers have to actively suppress their knowledge of the health risks involved. Some offer “person who” arguments: “I knew a person who smoked three packs a day and lived to be 85.” Others downplay their dependence on the substance: “I’m just smoking with my friends, and I can quit anytime.” In other words, “caving to a craving” can involve considerable mental effort, especially when we’re mindful of a conflicting goal, in this case living a long and healthy life.

We go through much of our life on autopilot, scarcely aware of what we do and mostly blind to our reasons for doing so. As we set goals for ourselves, we need to be mindful of conflicting goals lurking just below the threshold of consciousness. By bringing these potential challenges to the surface and examining them carefully, we can build the inner strength to resist them when they challenge our long-term plans.

I wish you all a Happy New Year, and may all your New Year’s resolutions be successful!

Reference

Kopetz, C. & Orehek, E. (2015). When the end justifies the means: Self-defeating behaviors as “rational” and “successful” self-regulation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 386-391.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).