Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Does willpower work? Maybe not, says new study

Chocolate chips and peanuts. Photo: Sally Kneidel 
If I can resist eating that delectable snack now, then resisting it later will be easier. Right? That's what I've always told myself. But does my experience support such a conclusion? Not really.

He can get away with it

For example, my husband has recently taken to pouring himself a little bowl of chocolate chips and roasted peanuts when he gets home from work.  He can get away with such indulgence, being naturally slim. Not me. For a while I was able to regard the chocolate chips as "off limits" for myself. But one day I caved...and now.....well, there's a bowl of peanuts and chocolate chips right beside my keyboard as I type this.

Such struggles are continuous for me, partly because our kitchen is always stocked with tempting items.

Desires get stronger...

So I was intrigued to read about a recent study of willpower, from psychologists at the University of Chicago and Florida State University. Just how effective is self-control in resisting temptations? Contrary to public opinion, exerting self-control does not have the effect of fortifying our resolve. Rather, it saps a person's mental energy and makes the next temptation harder to resist.  Said researcher Roy Baumeister, "Prior resistance makes new desires seem stronger than usual." I found this surprising when I first read it. But on further reflection, it began to ring true.

Food, sleep, and sex were most intense

Baumeister and co-author Wilhelm Hofman arrived at their conclusions after contacting 205 adults throughout the day for a week. The subjects used hand-held devices to report more than 10,000 desires and temptations to the researchers during the week. Overall, desires for food, sleep and sex were rated as most intense, outscoring alcohol and tobacco. Less intense urges included checking e-mail and attending to job-related matters.

The key finding was the fluctuation in willpower within a given day. Early in the day., respondents failed to resist urges 15% of the time. But when a temptation recurred later in the day, the failure rate more than doubled, rising to 37%. Researcher Baumeister said that fatigue alone does not account for this change.

Curiously, volunteers in the study had no awareness of having weaker resistance when facing a temptation more than once in a single day.

Stay away!

So. If resistance does not strengthen resolve, then how can a person like me control unhealthy urges? The answer is to avoid the confrontations with tempting items. Researcher Wilhelm Hofmann said people best able to resist temptations find ways to stay away from the desired actions or items, so that they rarely have to rely on self control. Ah, that makes sense. I've written myself that the easiest way to avoid unhealthy foods is to keep them out of the house. And all 12-step programs encourage abstainers to change their habits, to avoid situations where temptation presents itself.

Love those pepitas

I guess I'm learning....however slowly. Last week I stopped by Earth Fare to pick up some groceries, and for a little present, I bought my husband some roasted pumpkin seeds, which he dearly loves. Now these are not an unhealthy snack. But because they're so tasty, I could overdo it. I could plow right through them in short order, leaving none for my husband. So, I put them in a jar in his study, where I won't see them. I told him to keep them out of my sight.

Those scrumptious pepitas.  Photo: Sally Kneidel
And I haven't eaten them! Because I don't think about them. See, I knew instinctively to do that, even before I read Baumeister's and Hofmann's study. My willpower is weak to begin with and now I know that it gets weaker when challenged. So, avoidance really is the best strategy.

Check it out:

NY Times review of book Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

Baumeister and Hofmann reported their findings at the January 28 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (This link is to the program for the meeting, a 6.59 MB pdf document that has only a brief summary of the will-power study.)

Keywords: willpower, self control, diet, snacking,  Wilhelm Hofmann, Roy Baumeister