Why 'self-control' may be a myth

'The people who are really good at self-control never have these battles in the first place'

Editor's note: This story wad updated on March 12, 2018.

We often think the ability to say "no" is a virtue, but many psychologists say the benefits of self-control are "overhyped," Brian Resnick writes for Vox.

Rather, researchers say that the ability to resist temptation has more to do with what's your environment than with any internal moral strength or weakness. As Kentaro Fujita, a psychologist at the Ohio State University, explained, "Effortful restraint, where you are fighting yourself—the benefits of that are overhyped."

For instance, researchers in a 2011 study tracked 205 people in Germany for a week. At random moments, the participants' phones would prompt them to answer questions about any desires, temptations, or self-control challenges they were having at that moment.

The study found that the people who were most likely to agree with statements such as "I am good at resisting temptations" were the same people who reported experiencing fewer temptations through the study period.

"To put it more simply," Resnick writes, "the people who said they excel at self-control were hardly using it at all."

When McGill University researchers recently followed 159 students for a week for a similarly designed study, they found similar results. But the McGill researchers also discovered that the students who actually exerted self-control more frequently—that is, those who were faced with temptations and resisted—were not more successful at achieving their goals than their peers.

Instead, students who experienced fewer temptations in the first place proved to be more successful at the end of the school semester.

"People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place," psychologist Brian Galla explained to Vox. Perhaps they make running a daily habit so that they don't have to fight procrastination each time they want to exercise, or perhaps they refuse to buy unhealthy food so that they don't have to fight temptation later.

How to get better at resisting—or avoiding—temptation

Unfortunately, studies have found that the ability to exercise self-control when faced with tempting situations often comes from factors outside of our control. For instance, a 2004 study found that genetics play a role.

Your family income can play a factor as well, according to University of Oregon neuroscientist Elliot Berkman. Studies have found that those who grow up in low-income households are less likely to focus on long-term rewards, and more likely to seek immediate satisfaction.

So if it's so hard to exercise self-control, how can we nonetheless avoid giving into temptation?

Find an activity you enjoy. Resnick points out that many people who are more diligent about studying or working out actually enjoy those activities. They're not tempted by sleeping in because they actually enjoy going for that early morning run. So if you're trying to lose weight, find a physical activity you enjoy, thereby reducing the temptation to skip out on your workout, Resnick writes.

Plan your way into better self-control. Structure your life to avoid facing temptations in the first place: If you want to wake up early to go on that run, move your alarm clock to the other side of the room to force yourself to get out of bed.

Other approaches. Some scientists are working on other ways to make self-control easier. One concept, called "temptation bundling," aims to tie unenjoyable and enjoyable activities together, such as letting yourself listen to your favorite podcast only when you're cleaning the house. It's been successful among study participants, although the positive effects tend to wear off over time, Vox reports.

Another approach, called the motivational boost, is currently being researched. The technique involves asking participants how their goals fit into their core values, and then periodically reminding them why their goals matter, in efforts to increase their motivation to stay on track.

"It's exciting because we're maybe [about to] break through on a whole variety of new strategies and interventions that we would have never thought about," Galla said (Resnick, Vox, 11/3).

More workplace skills to master: Having better meetings

How to have a great meeting

There are about 11 million formal meetings in the United States every day—and more than half of them may be unproductive. Why? Because many meetings are inefficiently run. They don't set or achieve clear goals. And we hold them out of habit.

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