faculty digest

Balancing Desire and Self-Control in Everyday Life

Professor Wilhelm Hofmann investigates the temptations we struggle with most, and why we respond to them in the way that we do.

By Erin O'Neill
Published: Summer 2012

It happens to the best of us. We vow to lose 10 pounds. We swear that this vacation, we won’t check email. But then, after a few weeks, or days - or even minutes - we give in to temptation.

But why?

In his recent paper, “What People Desire, Feel Conflicted About, and Try to Resist in Everyday Life,” published in Psychological Science, Wilhelm Hofmann, assistant professor of behavioral science - along with two colleagues - found that some desires are harder to resist than others. “Self-regulation is important for both theoretical and practical reasons,” the authors wrote. “Yet, the majority of research on self-regulation occurs in the laboratory.” In order to better understand the interplay among desire, motivation, and self-control in everyday life, the researchers used smartphone experience sampling to closely monitor desire experiences in a sample of 205 adults over the period of a week. Using this technique, the researchers collected information on more than 7,000 desire episodes in people’s daily lives, and thus were able to directly compare various human desires in frequency, strength, conflict, and controllability with each other.

Not surprisingly, the single most frequently mentioned desire was that for food. Desires for nonalcoholic drinks, sleep, media, leisure, and social contact also made it to the top of the list. In terms of desire strength, the most potent desires were for sleep, sex, and social contact, among others. Surprisingly, desires for substances long considered to be highly addictive - such as tobacco and alcohol - were among the weakest in average strength. In terms of conflicting desires, participants reported having the highest levels of conflict in regard to leisure activities and sleep, followed by spending, media use, and tobacco.

Yet, despite the strength and frequency of many of their urges, participants were generally able to exhibit impressive rates of self-control in resisting those desires that were experienced as problematic. But when it came to media desires (such as watching TV, checking emails, or surfing Facebook) and desires for work - their willpower often faltered. On average, participants enacted 42 percent of the media  desires they had actively attempted to resist.

Hofmann credited this fascinating soft spot to societal norms and our general feelings about the cost-benefi t analysis of these activities. “Modern life is a welter of assorted desires, marked by frequent conflict and resistance - the latter with uneven success,” Hofmann explained. “With cigarettes and alcohol, there are more costs - long-term, as well as monetary -  and the opportunity [to consume] may not always be the right one. Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high levels of availability and also because it feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist.” 

But, as vices go, aren’t work and media-usage relatively good ones to have? According to Hofmann, it depends on your overall goals. The study warns of the potential for media habits to develop into abuse and noted, “Whether underregulation of media use causes serious problems for Westerners is an intriguing issue.” So, while compulsively checking email or spending time on Facebook offers a quick fix for boredom and one’s need for connectedness, doing so comes with its own pitfalls. “Even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential,” Hofmann said, “the frequent media use may still ‘steal’ a lot of people’s time and attention away from other things that matter.” 





Last Updated 9/27/12