Trying to resist that late-night tweet or checking your work email again? The bad news is that desires for work and entertainment often win out in the daily struggle for self-control, according to a new study that measures various desires and their regulation in daily life.
"Modern life is a welter of assorted desires marked by frequent conflict and resistance, the latter with uneven success," says Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Determining how to best resist desires is not as easy as it seems, according to personality and social psychologists who recently presented new research in San Diego about willpower and food psychology.
In the new study of desire regulation, 205 adults wore devices that recorded a total of 7,827 reports about their daily desires. Desires for sleep and sex were the strongest, while desires for media and work proved the hardest to resist. Even though tobacco and alcohol are thought of as addictive, desires associated with them were the weakest, according to the study. Surprisingly to the researchers, sleep and leisure were the most problematic desires, suggesting "pervasive tension between natural inclinations to rest and relax and the multitude of work and other obligations," says Hofmann, the lead author of the study forthcoming in Psychological Science.
Moreover, the study supported past research that the more frequently and recently people have resisted a desire, the less successful they will be at resisting any subsequent desire. Therefore as a day wears on, willpower becomes lower and self-control efforts are more likely to fail, says Hofmann, who co-authored the paper with Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota.
Scientists who study the complex interplay between desires and self control say that passing up on temptation is made ever more difficult by the idea that there is no single or clear feeling that alerts us to when our willpower is low. "But we find that when willpower is low, everything is felt more intensely," says Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. "Low willpower seems to turn up the volume on life."
In a series of experiments, Baumeister and his colleagues found that people with low willpower reported more distress in response to an upsetting film and rated cold water as more painful during a cold-water immersion test. They also had stronger desires to open a gift and to keep eating cookies.
Postponing a snack
The effects of willpower depletion explain why so many people have trouble resisting unhealthy food -- the more they resist the food, the more they crave it. That's why one group of researchers is looking at ways people can alter their physical cravings. Nicole Mead of Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics and her colleagues tested the notion that postponing consumption of a unhealthy snack to an unspecified future time would reduce the desire for, and therefore consumption of, that snack.
In one experiment, Mead's team gave 105 high school students in the Netherlands a bag of potato chips. Some participants received instructions to either postpone, restrain, or consume the potato chips, while others could choose among the three eating strategies. Over the course of one week, students who initially postponed eating the chips subsequently ate the least amount of the chips, regardless of whether they chose or were given the strategy. They ate even more than those who were instructed to not eat them at all.
"Postponing consumption is an effective strategy that consumers can use for controlling unwanted food-related desires," Mead says. "In modern society, people are absolutely inundated with opportunities to consume, and this strategy may be particularly helpful because it primarily works through desire reduction rather than willpower enhancement." Future research will examine whether the strategy works for other transient impulses, such as spending and sexual desires.
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