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Temptation and the Christmas season

Christmas is coming, and overindulgence beckons.  We will all be faced with temptations to overeat, drink too much and spend too much money.  Even those with the strongest will can find their best intentions undermined. 

Social psychologists have delved into the science behind willpower, and have some tips to help us avoid what we may later regret.

The science behind willpower studies how people deal with, and overcome, temptation, and gain control over their appetites. Psychologists try to identify the factors that lead to overindulgence and, most importantly, what enables someone to resist temptation and exert control over themselves.

Anatomy of willpower

Psychologists currently view self-control and willpower as both a trait that is relatively stable and enduring, and a state that is magnified or diminished due to events in a person’s environment. A trait is similar to a personality factor that varies between people and influences our behaviour in a number of different contexts and situations. An individual with a high level of trait self-control will be very good at regulating their behaviour. They will be able to resist temptations much more easily than others.

I’m sure that many of us could verify this from our own Christmas experiences: some people are just better at saying ‘no’ and controlling the compulsion to overindulge than others. However, just because a person may have low trait self-control does not mean that they will always succumb to temptation. Whether we are able to control ourselves also depends on things like desire, the strength of the temptation, and whether we have the psychological resources immediately available to enable us to resist. This means that willpower is a complex interaction between our overall willpower, how tempting the situation, personal preferences, and whether we have the self-control to deal with what we’re faced with.

Virtual ‘muscles’

So what are these resources that scientists speak of? A theory that has received a lot of recent attention is the so-called ‘strength’ model of self-control. In the model, self-control is viewed as a limited resource which is needed when we encounter a situation in which we need to overcome an impulse or desire. But, just as a working muscle becomes fatigued after a spell of exertion, so do self-control resources. This means that, after a spell performing an activity that requires self-control, our willpower becomes depleted.

When our self-control is running on empty, we are at risk of giving in to further temptation. For example, after a hard day’s work during which we’ve had to do some very taxing or boring tasks, which has meant we’ve needed to overcome the urge or temptation to quit, we might be more vulnerable to the allure of a tempting dessert or that extra glass of wine at dinner time. We might be saying to ourselves, ‘Well, I deserve this, I’ve earned it!’  With hardly any self-control left, we might be trying to rationalise our indulgence.

Experiment in temptation

Social psychologists have used ingenious experiments to validate the strength model and show that self-control is a limited resource.

In one experiment, Roy Baumeister and colleagues at Florida State University presented participants with two types of food: tempting, freshly-baked cookies and less tempting, red and white radishes. One group of participants was asked to taste the radishes and forego the cookies, while another group was asked to taste the cookies. The theory was that participants assigned to the radishes would have to overcome the temptation to eat the cookies, which would place a demand on their self-control. All participants were then asked to try to solve a problem for as long as they could. The task was rigged, however, so that finding a solution was impossible and required a great deal of willpower to overcome the urge to quit.

The results revealed that participants asked to taste the cookies persisted for significantly longer with the problem solving than those asked to taste the radishes. It seems that overcoming the temptation offered by the cookies reduced the strength of the participants’ self-control, so that it was weakened when it came to the impossible problem solving.

Using experiments like this, psychologists have demonstrated that overcoming temptation is very demanding of self-control. In fact, it saps it to such an extent that it leaves us with little willpower to resist temptations or do any subsequent activity that requires self-control.

Boosting reserves

From the perspective of the strength model, trait self-control represents the size of our reserve tank of willpower: our overall capacity for doing tasks requiring it. So, people with high trait self-control should be less vulnerable to its depletion by the sorts of tasks used in experiments such as Baumeister’s - and the tempting situations we experience at times like Christmas. This is consistent with the view that the role of willpower in overcoming temptation is an interaction between both trait and situational factors.

So what does this mean for people with low trait self-control when faced with the temptations that arise over Christmas and New Year? Should they be considered hopeless cases, consigned to giving in at every turn? Not necessarily!

Recent studies have shown that we can boost our resources of self-control through some simple training exercises. In these studies, participants are asked to do things that require good self-control: for example, not swearing, performing everyday tasks with the non-dominant hand, controlling food intake and keeping a food diary, and sitting with correct posture for two weeks.

Results indicated that regular practice in these sorts of commitments led to significant improvements in tasks needing self-control - such as the impossible problem solving. It sounds a bit barmy, but it seems that regularly doing things like not swearing can actually make you better at resisting the kinds of temptations you’ll probably be faced with during the festive season.

Formula for success

The science behind willpower is providing new insight into what happens when we’re presented with such tempting food and drink at Christmas and at other festive times. While some people are generally better at foregoing that extra mince pie than others, it seems that the situation as well as your self-control strength is important.

Many view ‘putting on one or two pounds’ at Christmas as inevitable and nothing more than an inconvenience – something which can be dealt with later. But the reality for an increasing number of people is that the extra weight gain is not lost in the long run. So, hide the pies away and start brushing your teeth with your left (or right) hand, and you might be well equipped to start this New Year in much better shape than the last.

Martin Hagger
Martin Hagger is Professor of Psychology at Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia
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