New Insights on the Significance of Willpower to Self-Control
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In Greek mythology, the story of Odysseus and the Sirens illustrates a paradigmatic example of self-control.
When the hero of Homer’s epic prepares to travel past the Sirens, mythical creatures who lure sailors with their enchanted singing, he instructs his crew to plug their ears with wax and tie him to the ship’s mast. That way, he can listen to the Sirens as he sails by, and the crew can keep their wits. No matter how much he begs to be released, no one will hear his pleas.
Was Odysseus exercising willpower with his plan, or was he merely removing his ability to cave to temptation?
Researchers have long wondered what tools people successfully use to resist temptations—like eating another bag of potato chips or checking Facebook one more time before bed. And while no one really knows why some of us have more self-control than others, psychologists and behavioral economists know a lot about the methods people use to resist temptation.
Philosophers, psychologists, and economists have reached the consensus that we can use two different kinds of regulation to achieve self-control: synchronic regulation and diachronic regulation.
Synchronic regulation relies on deliberate, effortful willpower, in the moment, to resist current temptation.
Diachronic regulation involves selecting and modifying one’s situation and cultivating habits over time to avoid temptation, in other words, implements a plan to avoid future temptation—essentially removing willpower from the equation.
Psychologists and economists have increasingly argued that because willpower is difficult to exercise, diachronic regulation is more effective than synchronic regulation. This conclusion is based in part on the failure of willpower-driven campaigns (such as Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign, which had no measurable effects on youth tobacco, alcohol or drug use).
But researcher Jordan Bridges and her colleagues hypothesized that such assessments of synchronic regulation rested on a faulty interpretation of the data, that supposed examples of effective purely diachronic strategies involved the use of willpower to implement, and that the popular, or “folk,” view of willpower is just as important. “We theorized that it takes willpower to implement temptation-avoidance strategies,” said Bridges.
Using a multifactorial research design, the researchers sought to decontaminate cases of self-control to test how people viewed synchronic and diachronic regulation as separate entities.
What they found was that when the two forms of regulation were pulled apart, participants thought only willpower counted as self-control; pure diachronic strategies did not. And in mixed cases involving both forms of regulation, participants rated the cases as involving the exercise of self-control, only because they involved synchronic regulation, not the more behavioral framework of temptation avoidance.
Bridges said these findings are important for the study of self-control, and for how psychologists, philosophers, economists and clinical practitioners discuss these concepts.
“Scientific discussion, and science communication, can often involve debates over terms that don’t track how we ordinarily use them,” said Bridges. “If we care about successfully communicating scientific results, we need to speak in terms that people understand.”
The research’s final experiment found that self-control in a diachronic case depends on whether a person uses synchronic regulation at two moments: when they a) initiate and b) follow-through on a plan to resist temptation.
Taken together, the results strongly suggest that synchronic regulation is the sole difference maker in the folk concept of self-control.
“People often infer that it’s the diachronic strategy doing the self-control work, when really, moments of synchronic regulation are being amplified with diachronic strategy.
Specifically, people typically use willpower (synchronic regulation) to achieve their plans to avoid temptation (diachronic regulation). So even if cases of diachronic regulation seem to involve self-control, this may be because they are contaminated by synchronic regulation.
Understanding the role of willpower in self-control has implications for the way we talk about helping people break habits.”
I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.
I can resist anything except temptation.
I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
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It seems we either avoid temptation or resist it. So, in effect, we either lack strategy or willpower. But is it really as black and white and as fair and square as that?
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