As the Bible tells it, the first crime committed was a lapse of self-control. Eve was forbidden from tasting the fruit on the tree of knowledge. But the temptation was too much. The fruit was just so “pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom,” Genesis reads. Who wouldn’t want that? Humanity was just days old, but already we were succumbing to a vice.
The takeaway from this story was clear: when temptation overcomes willpower, it’s a moral failing, worthy of punishment.
Modern-day psychologists might not blame Eve for her errant ways at all. Because what’s true today was also true at the beginning of time (regardless of what story you believe in): Human beings are horrible at resisting temptation.
“Effortful restraint, where you are fighting yourself — the benefits of that are overhyped,” Kentaro Fujita, a psychologist who studies self-control at the Ohio State University, says.
He’s not the only one who thinks so. Several researchers I spoke to are making a strong case that we shouldn’t feel so bad when we fall for temptations.
Indeed, studies have found that trying to teach people to resist temptation either only has short-term gains or can be an outright failure. “We don’t seem to be all that good at [self-control],” Brian Galla, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, says.
The implications of this are huge: If we accept that brute willpower doesn’t work, we can feel less bad about ourselves when we succumb to temptation. And we might also be able refocus our efforts on solving problems like obesity. A recent national survey from the University of Chicago finds that 75 percent of Americans say a lack of willpower is a barrier to weight loss. And yet the emerging scientific consensus is that the obesity crisis is the result of a number of factors, including genes and the food environment — and, crucially, not a lack of willpower.
If we could stop worshiping self-control, maybe we could start thinking about diluting the power of temptation — and helping people meet their goals in new ways with less effort.
The case against willpower
Many of us assume that if we want to make big changes in our lives, we have to sweat for it.
But if, for example, the change is to eat fewer sweets, and then you find yourself in front of a pile of cookies, researchers say the pile of cookies has already won.
“Our prototypical model of self-control is angel on one side and devil on the other, and they battle it out,” Fujita says. “We tend to think of people with strong willpower as people who are able to fight this battle effectively. Actually, the people who are really good at self-control never have these battles in the first place.”
This idea was crystallized in the results of a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study tracked 205 people for one week in Germany. The study participants were given BlackBerrys that would go off at random, asking them questions about what desires, temptations, and self-control they were experiencing in the moment.
The paper stumbled on a paradox: The people who were the best at self-control — the ones who most readily agreed to survey questions like “I am good at resisting temptations” — reported fewer temptations throughout the study period.
To put it more simply: The people who said they excel at self-control were hardly using it at all.
Psychologists Marina Milyavskaya and Michael Inzlicht recently confirmed and expanded on this idea. In their study, they monitored 159 students at McGill University in Canada in a similar manner for a week.
If resisting temptation is a virtue, then more resistance should lead to greater achievement, right? That’s not what the results, pending publication in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, found.
The students who exerted more self-control were not more successful in accomplishing their goals. It was the students who experienced fewer temptations overall who were more successful when the researchers checked back in at the end of the semester. What’s more, the people who exercised more effortful self-control also reported feeling more depleted. So not only were they not meeting their goals, they were also exhausted from trying.
“There’s a strong assumption still that exerting self-control is beneficial,” Milyavskaya, a professor at Carleton University, tells me. “And we’re showing in the long term, it’s not.”…