Self-control is a necessary skill in our day to day life. It is what allows us to bite our tongue before insulting a person, what drags us to the gym on days when we do not feel like exercising, and helps us avoid harmful foods.
Without self-control we would get carried away by our first impulses and it is very likely that we would end up making hasty decisions that would lead to more problems and conflicts. However, while we understand the importance of self-control, we would actually prefer not to have to exercise it. We are lazy.
Following the first impulses and surrendering to the circumstances is the easiest way. But it does not always lead us to the best path, so it is essential to learn self-control in the most efficient way possible. Fortunately, psychological research gives us some clues.
Recognizing and overcoming our aversion to resisting temptations
Psychologists from New York University delved into the cognitive processes that are at the basis of self-control and what we would be willing to do to avoid having to control ourselves. In practice, they asked what price we are willing to pay to eliminate the need to activate self-control and evaluated how that “price” fluctuates in different types of situations.
To do this, they conducted a series of experiments in which they accurately quantified how much dieters were willing to pay to avoid being exposed to tempting foods in different circumstances. Thus they established the cost of self-control.
In one of the experiments, for example, participants indicated the most they were willing to pay out of a $10 donation to eliminate a tempting meal like a chocolate brownie, which they would place in front of them for 30 minutes.
As might be expected, the more tempting the food was to the person, the more they were willing to pay to avoid having to exercise self-control, suggesting that we have an aversion to resisting temptation.
In fact, applying self-control requires a significant psychological effort, so it is not surprising that we experience a certain rejection of those tempting situations that force us to control our impulses.
Therefore, the first key to learning self-control is to avoid exposing ourselves to situations that can activate the old habits that we want to eliminate, at least until we have developed sufficient willpower.
That means that, if you are on a diet, for example, you better not buy the foods that you should not eat. It will be much easier for you to avoid them in the supermarket than when they have reached your kitchen and you have them on hand. If you are quitting smoking, try to avoid the situations that trigger your desire to smoke by anticipating them and making a plan B.
Reward yourself and de-stress
However, the researchers went one step further and varied the conditions. In one of them, for example, they offered an additional financial incentive to people to avoid tempting food and in others they increased the stress level of the participants.
In both cases, people were willing to pay more to eliminate the temptation. That means that the cost of exercising self-control increases when we are stressed or when what we play by giving in to temptation is valuable to us.
Since self-control failure occurs when the cognitive costs of self-control outweigh the perceived benefits, the second key to learning self-control is to always keep in mind what you will lose. Since we also have a deep aversion to loss, reminding ourselves of the stakes will help us stay on the line we have set.
That means looking beyond the moment to focus on what we will gain in the long term. In fact, it can also be helpful to look for a reward that is significant enough to help you control yourself.
On the other hand, you must be aware that stress works against you when it comes to resisting temptations. In practice, stress saps your psychological resources, making it more difficult to exercise self-control. Therefore, the third key to learning self-control is to reduce the level of stress in your life.
If you are going to set yourself an ambitious goal, such as quitting smoking, you better not do it in the middle of a turbulent stage of your life that generates a lot of stress because that goal is likely to fail before you start.
Raio, C. M. & Glimcher, P. W. (2021) Quantifying the subjective cost of self-control in humans. PNAS; 118 (35): e2018726118.