People with a lot of self-control — people who, when they happen upon a delicious food they don’t think they should eat, seemingly grin and bear the temptation until it passes — have it easy. But why? For a long time, the thinking was that these people are good at inhibiting their impulses. That they have a lot of willpower and they know how to use it.
People who are bad at resisting temptation, meanwhile, supposedly have insufficient or underexploited willpower, a view with deep cultural and moral roots. (Think Adam and Eve and the original sin.) It’s also deeply embedded in the pop psychology of reaching goals and self-improvement. “People are happiest and healthiest when there is an optimal fit between self and environment, and this fit can be substantially improved by altering the self to fit the world,” argued an influential 2004 paper that proposed a questionnaire to rate people on self-control.
But this idea, that people have self-control because they’re good at willpower, is looking more and more like a myth. It turns out that self-control, and all the benefits from it, may not be related to inhibiting impulses at all. And once we cast aside the idea of willpower, we can better understand what actually works to accomplish goals, and hit those New Year’s resolutions.
The idea of willpower has withered as the scientific tests for it have gotten better
There are two main ways to measure a person’s level of self-control.
One is with the self-control scale first published in 2004. This asks participants to agree or disagree with statements like “I am good at resisting temptation” and “I don’t keep secrets very well.” (See the whole questionnaire here.) It’s a pretty simple measure, and it does a remarkable job at predicting success in life.
People who score highly on this scale have better relationships, are better at abstaining from binge eating and alcohol, do better in school, and are generally happier. (A 2012 meta-analysis with more than 32,648 participants found compelling evidence that these links are solid.)
A second way to measure self-control is to actually test it, behaviorally, in a situation. In a classic (and increasingly challenged) self-control study, psychologist Roy Baumeister had participants resist the smell of just-baked cookies. Today, it’s much more common for psychologists to use brain teasers that create internal, cognitive conflicts that participants have to use willpower to overcome.
Again, you’d assume people who say they are good at self-control excel at these tasks that demand a lot of restraint, right? That wasn’t the case as through rigorous tests conducted by sceintists, people who say they’re great at self-control aren’t much better at controlling themselves than the rest of us.
So who are these people who are rarely tested by temptations? They’re doing something right. Recent research suggests a few lessons we can draw from them.
1) People who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities some of us resist — like eating healthy, studying, or exercising. So engaging in these activities isn’t a chore for them. It’s fun.
If you’re running because you “have to” get in shape but find running to be a miserable activity, you’re probably not going to keep it up. An activity you like is more likely to be repeated than an activity you hate.
2) People who are good at self-control have learned better habits.
In 2015, psychologists Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, finding across six studies and more than 2,000 participants that people who are good at self-control also tend to have good habits — like exercising regularly, eating healthy, sleeping well, and studying.
People who do the same activity, like running or meditating, at the same time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, he says — not because of their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.
A trick to wake up more quickly in the morning is to set the alarm on the other side of the room. That’s not in-the-moment willpower at play; it’s planning.
This theory harks back to one of the classic studies on self-control: Walter Mischel’s “marshmallow test,” conducted in the 1960s and ’70s. In these tests, kids were told they could either eat one marshmallow sitting in front of them immediately or eat two later. The ability to resist the immediate gratification was found to correlate with all sorts of positive life outcomes, like SAT scores and BMIs. But the kids who were best at the test weren’t necessarily intrinsically better at resisting temptation. They might have been employing a critical strategy.
3) Some people just experience fewer temptations.
Our dispositions are determined in part by our genetics. Some people are hungrier than others. Some people love gambling and shopping. People high in conscientiousness — a personality trait largely set by genetics — tend to be healthier and more vigilant students. When it comes to self-control, they won the genetic lottery.
4) It’s easier to have self-control when you’re wealthy.
When Mischel’s marshmallow test is repeated on poorer kids, there’s a clear trend: They perform worse, and appear less able to resist the treat in front of them. But there’s a good reason for this. As University of Oregon neuroscientist Elliot Berkman argues, people who grow up in poverty are more likely to focus on immediate rewards than long-term rewards, because when you’re poor, the future is less certain.
As anyone who has struggled with a diet knows, willpower won’t work in the long run. And failures of inhibition are too often confused for a moral failing. We blame willpower failings for weight gain, even though it’s genetics and our calorie-laden environments conspiring against out waistlines. We blame addicts for not restraining their urges, even though their addiction has a biological hold on their brain. And overall, psychologists are shying away from the concept, as years of work suggesting that willpower is a finite, essential resource has come under intense scrutiny.
In a specific situation, sure, you can muster willpower to save yourself from falling back into a bad habit. But relying on willpower alone to accomplish goals “is almost like relying on emergency brake when you are driving your car,” Saunders says. “You should focus on things that drive you toward your goals rather than stopping things that are in your way.” What’s more, the human “emergency brake” that is willpower is bound to fail in some instances, causing you to crash.
And it’s time we all took these lessons to heart. Focusing on failures of willpower leads to shame, both public and private, and holds back our curiosity from finding and enacting solutions that actually work.
Check out my related post: How to break a bad habit?