Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Well-Being

Lead us not into temptation: how people with good self-control avoid temptations

By Janina Steinmetz, Brittany Christian

We all know the almost painful sensation of being tempted. What’s tempting us? It’s typically small things that offer pleasure in the moment, but that hurt the pursuit of a long-term, important goal. The pain we feel is the conflict between “I want to” and “I should not”. Whereas we can certainly resist some temptations and don’t let our desires take over the wheel, our self-control sometimes breaks down and we just silence the “I should not”. But it seems like some people are better than others at resisting temptations and ultimately following their purposeful goals. Now what’s their secret?

Image ©: La Citta Vita 2013

Recent research by graduate student Michael Ent and professors Roy Baumeister and Diane Tice from Florida State University suggests that the secret is not some intricate and elaborate training of willpower. It’s simpler than that: Just stay away from temptations. Indeed, people who are good at self-control experience less self-control conflicts in their daily life because they expose themselves to fewer temptations. In detail, the researchers first measured participants’ chronic self-control ability by asking them questions such as “People would say that I have iron self-discipline,’’ and ‘‘I refuse things that are bad for me.” The more people endorse these statements, the better their chronic, trait-like self-control. Such trait-like self-control is a general ability that people have, and does not fluctuate across situations. Next, the researchers tempted participants in various ways. In one study, participants were offered the opportunity to solve anagrams for money. The harder they worked on this difficult task that requires concentration, the more money they could make. Crucially, participants could choose whether to work in a distraction-free, quiet lab room, or in a grad student lounge in which people would be talking occasionally. Clearly, the lab room is more conducive to working on the task and making more money. However, the researchers further told participants that they had to wait for 5 minutes for the lab room to be ready, whereas the grad student lounge was ready right away. Thereby, participants were tempted to avoid waiting and use the grad student lounge, although this could be too distracting to actually get work done and make money. The higher participants’ trait self-control, the more likely they were to exert patience and choose the distraction-free lab room despite the wait time. Thus, people with good self-control are better able to resist the momentary impulse to forego waiting, but are more likely to choose what is actually in line with their goal.

In a similar vein, New Paths to Purpose member Ayelet Fishbach has shown that external control and internal (self-)control may substitute each other. In other words, external constraints such as having only healthy food available or having no internet connection can substitute the strenuous exertion of self-control. Now, simply staying away from temptations may sound easy in theory, but in practice it’s hard to dodge all the delicious foods and fun activities that stand between us and the pursuit of our purposeful goals. However, if we keep in mind that our ability for self-control is limited, we may find that it’s easier to not even buy the chocolate than to have only one piece. Thus, thinking ahead, knowing our limits and not tempting ourselves beyond our willpower is the secret that allows our successful striving for purpose in life.


Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Well-Being

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