Several days into the year 2013, diets are already being broken, and cigarettes are being smoked by people trying to quit. So it’s no wonder that outlets from The Huffington Post to Canada’s Merritt Herald are picking up on temptation-related research by Wilhelm Hofmann, Booth Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science.
Temptations are at least as old as the Garden of Eden and people have been struggling to resist them, with mixed success, ever since. But not until recently have scientists tried to document how temptations arise in everyday life and what determines whether or not we are able to resist them. Hofmann tried to do just that in a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (here’s a PDF).
Together with his colleagues, Hofmann gave Blackberry devices to over 200 people in Würzburg, Germany, to carry with them for a week. The devices beeped at random intervals seven times a day, prompting people to list whatever desires they were currently experiencing and a series of related questions. Over the course of the week the volunteers generated 7,827 “desire reports.”
Many of the desires reported were simple needs, like wanting to eat (28.1%), sleep (10.3%), socialize (7.1%), play sports (2.6%), or use media (8.1%). People also reported frequent desires for things like smoking (5.9%) and drinking (2.7%).
Not all desires were problematic—just over half (53.2%) were reported to conflict with people’s values or other goals. But when desires were problematic, people often tried to resist them. While these self-control efforts were not perfect, a person was less likely to act on a desire when he tried to resist it (17.4%) versus when he didn’t put up a fight (69.6%).
So what determines whether people try to resist temptations and whether or not they are successful? Personality matters. Perfectionists were more likely to judge their desires as problematic, and as a result they had more desires they wanted to resist. Narcissists had the opposite situation—they seemed to consider themselves entitled to whatever desire they experienced. (Perfectionists and narcissists were identified by a separate survey.)
Hofmann also found that people are better at resisting temptation when there are other people around, as long as those people aren’t modeling the temptation. If you’re trying not to drink, and are at a restaurant with a group of people who aren’t drinking, you’re less likely to give in to temptation. But if everyone else at your table has a glass of alcohol, the effect reverses andit becomes much harder to resist that glass of wine.
Perhaps most interesting were Hofmann’s findings about people who scored high on a scale that measures self-control. One might think, as many psychologists did, that people with high degrees of self-control are more likely to try to resist temptations and do so successfully. Hofmann’s data suggest that neither of these things is true. Instead, people with high degrees of self-control are better at avoiding tempting situations in the first place.
Here’s the lesson for people struggling to stick to diets and keep other resolutions: The best way to avoid those donuts may be to keep them out of the house entirely. Once they’re inside your cupboard, they can be very hard to resist.