Modern life is filled with instances of summoning one’s willpower. Temptations are ever-present in various forms, be they unhealthy foods, the internet, alcohol, or cigarettes. Scientists have often compared self-control to a muscle that gets tired—too many attempts to control one’s impulses can weaken the resolve to resist future temptations. While much has been written about people’s capacity to resist temptations, little is known about how people get into situations that require restraint in the first place.

Desires are a starting point, and the need for self-control arises when people experience desires that are incompatible with their values and goals, says Chicago Booth assistant professor Wilhelm Hofmann. Which desires people feel most conflicted about and which ones they have a harder time resisting are discussed in a pair of recent studies by Hofmann, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, Georg Förster of the University of Würzburg, and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota.

In these studies, Hofmann and his coresearchers stepped outside the laboratory to closely follow people in their natural environments going about their daily routines. “We are trying to catch people with their hands in the cookie jar,” says Hofmann.

This new method, known as experience sampling, involved arming 205 participants in the city of Würzburg, Germany, with smartphones for seven consecutive days. Each day, the researchers sent participants seven text messages asking them whether they had experienced any desires in the previous 30 minutes. Any participants who answered affirmatively then had to indicate the type and strength of the desires, and whether those had conflicted with any personal standards and goals. Participants also revealed whether they had attempted to resist the desires and if they had eventually given in to them.

Of the fifteen types of desires identified in the study, Hofmann and his coresearchers found that the desires for sleep, sex, and social contact were the strongest. The urges to smoke and drink were the weakest, despite the addictive nature of alcohol and tobacco. People felt most conflicted about wanting to nap and engage in leisure activities during the day. They naturally wanted to rest and relax but were faced with a multitude of obligations, including work.

Work can be rewarding in many ways because it gives people a sense of purpose and achievement, not to mention income, but work also can be frustrating. Working overtime, for instance, can get in the way of family life, social activities, and much-needed rest. In the struggle between the desire to work and the urge to do other things, work usually wins. The studies found that almost half of people’s attempts to avoid work when they had good reason to do something else were unsuccessful.

The urge to watch television, surf the web, check email, and use social media also proved too irresistible to refuse. When participants in the study tried to avoid watching television or surfing the internet, they failed almost half the time. Media, with its huge appeal and constant presence, is very hard to resist, a worrisome point for those who feel that consuming media takes considerable time and distracts people from other goals and activities.

From Desire to Self-Control

Once desires become clear, people will immediately make every effort to fulfill those desires, especially if it’s possible to do so without feeling guilty. At times, however, people’s wants conflict with their goals and standards. This moment of conflict triggers self-control, and that can end in success or failure. People either resist the temptation to give in to their desires or act on those desires despite their ideals.

It turns out that people can successfully say “no” most of the time. Hofmann and his coresearchers found that in a 16-hour day, a typical person spends about half the time desiring things. Most of these desires pose no conflicts, so a person does not have to exercise self-control to ward them off and instead can fulfill them. Of the desires a person tries to refuse, the person is successful most of the time but fails on 17 percent of occasions. These findings show that a significant number of failures to keep bad desires in check persists in everyday life.

These self-control failures can occur after one has previously made many attempts to fend off conflicting desires. Previous studies have argued that exerting selfcontrol is like depleting a limited resource; frequent attempts at self-control reduce the willpower to resist temptations that arise later in the day. While these studies were mostly conducted in laboratory settings, Hofmann and his coauthors found the same to be true when they tested the theory outside the laboratory: people were more than twice as likely to yield to temptations when their resistance reservoirs were low.

Avoiding the Slippery Slope

The capacity for self-control varies from one person to the next. For many years, the prevailing view among academics was that people who were not very good at restraining themselves were either reluctant to exercise self-control or, if they did exercise it, prone to failure. On the other hand, those who were better at resisting temptations were viewed as having made more attempts and having been more determined to ward off conflicting desires.

An alternative view has sprung up in recent years. Those who exhibit better self-control actually make fewer—not more—attempts to exercise restraint because they know how to smartly avoid situations that would necessitate self-control in the first place. Hofmann and his coresearchers offered the first test of these alternate theories, opting to conduct the experiment outside the laboratory, as it allowed participants to make certain decisions rather than others, as people do in everyday life.

The researchers found that people who have a greater capacity for self-control, as established by a personality test developed by scientists in a previous study, reported feeling fewer daily conflicts between their desires and goals. Fewer temptations meant fewer occasions for exercising self-control, evidence that these types actively sought situations that put them out of harm’s way. “Resistance is what you have to do only when you’re sliding down a slippery slope,” says Hofmann. A smoker trying to quit, for example, is well aware that he could start smoking again if he were to go to a bar where a lot of people smoke or if he were to meet up with friends who smoke heavily.

While personality differences can determine how often people reach that point of temptation, certain situations and social factors can influence how well they manage their desires at the crossroads.

For instance, Hofmann and his coresearchers found that drinking large amounts of alcohol not only makes people exceptionally vulnerable to temptation but also makes desires feel much stronger. People may drink to relax, but these studies suggest that drinking heavily actually intensifies inner turmoil. The researchers also found that watching others yield to similar desires weakens the willpower to control those desires. Seeing others indulge seems to give people a justification for doing the same, or at least reminds them of the joys of that self-forbidden fruit.

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