Ulysses is said to have tied himself to the flagpole of his ship, so that as he sailed past the sirens and heard their beautiful voices, he wouldn’t be able to steer the ship into the rocks trying to find them. When it comes to self-control, tactics of this variety seem to be the most effective.
Self-control is generally construed as a battle between your present and future self. There’s something of immediate value, say some sweet food or a good TV show; and then there are those values which you’ll benefit from at a later time, such as a slim waist and more money.
Most of the time we place greater value on the long-term goals, it’s our future self we want to take care of. But in the moment, when you stare that cold beer down, when you’re slouching in the couch as your running shoes sit outside the door, those values can quickly shift.
It’d be nice if we were strong enough to resist in these cases. But even Ulysses recognised how much easier that is in theory than practice. Subjective value is dynamic, constantly in flux. It’s not a good idea to assume that because you value a better income over a new movie right now, that it’ll hold when you find something funny to watch.
“Self-control is, centrally, about conflict. And, like tango, it takes (at least) two to have a conflict.” —Richard Thaler in Misbehaving.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Resisting temptations through mental effort is not impossible but is far from the best strategy. As the day wears on, we become less likely to invest that effort. Several studies highlight the difficulty.
In the classic Marshmallow experiment, Walter Mischel tasks children with avoiding a treat for enough time to be given a second. They struggle, but often the more successful kids were those that turned their heads, covered their eyes, and for the most part found ways to get the sweets out of their attention.
“Some covered their eyes with their hands, rested their heads on their arms to stare sideways, or turned their heads away to completely avoid facing the rewards. Trying desperately to avert their gaze for most of the time, some occasionally stole a quick glance toward the treats to remind themselves that they were still there and worth waiting for,” says Walter Mischel in The Marshmallow Test. “Successful delayers created all sorts of ways to distract themselves and to cool the conflict and stress they were experiencing.”
Getting the temptations out of your mind seems like a decent idea. It is certainly better than fixing your gaze on it and expecting your willpower to do the rest. But sometimes our intention to remove thoughts from our mind can backfire, similar to how telling someone not to think of a bear is more likely to make them think of it.
The Rebound Effect
The authors of one study write, “Although thought suppression is a popular form of mental control, research has indicated that it can be counterproductive, helping assure the very state of mind one had hoped to avoid.” The idea has been termed the rebound effect, which occurs when the effortful avoidance of particular thoughts or behaviour is followed by a higher influx of those thoughts or restricted behaviour.
When people were asked to suppress thoughts about chocolate, they subsequently ate significantly more than those not instructed to control their thoughts. A similar effect was observed in smokers—people monitored their smoking frequency and stress levels over three weeks, during the second week one group were asked to suppress thoughts of smoking, another group to express them, while the control group did nothing different.
The suppression group smoked less over that second week while experiencing higher stress levels. But in the third week, once the suppression group stopped suppressing, their stress levels fell while smoking behaviour rose to a rate higher than both other groups. The suppression worked in the short-term but backfired as a long-term strategy.
The authors write, “the suppression of thoughts related to unwanted behavior may have several consequences: One may think about the behavior more rather than less, engage in the behavior more rather than less, and feel as though the action was not intentionally completed. The results presented in this article, coupled with evidence from other research on this topic, suggest that thought suppression may be more harmful than previously believed.”
What Can You Do?
Self-control is less about the strength you need to resist temptations than it is about finding ways to avoid having to face them. When people working towards particular goals were studied, the results showed that the more successful among them weren’t endowed with a stronger will, they simply experienced fewer temptations. For whatever reason, they were not exposed to the things that would create mental tension.
Clearly, the first measure you should take is to keep temptations as far from you as possible. Don’t fill your cupboard with snacks if you want to eat healthily. Don’t go to a bar if you don’t want to drink. Keep your phone on flight mode if you don’t want to be distracted. If the PlayStation keeps luring you in, pack it away in a difficult to reach space. You don’t want to be reminded of the things you’re trying to avoid.
Another method is to try to change the value of your options. If you can find a way to make the wrong choice even worse, or the right choice more appealing, the tension between them won’t cause as much trouble. You might agree to pay someone money whenever you indulge, to do pushups whenever you want to check social media, or use treats only as rewards for finishing particular tasks.
James Clear writes in Atomic Habits about Ronan Byrne, who hooked his stationary bike up with his laptop, so that it would only play Netflix when he was peddling above a particular speed.
“You’re more likely to find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things at the same time.” —James Clear
You might also try reappraisal, which involves changing your perspective of your options, ie: the cake becomes a high-calorie artery-clogging sponge. The salad becomes a nourishing brain-boosting super-meal. “Cognitive re-appraisal means deliberately changing the way we think about a situation or an object in order to change the way we feel about it,” says Scott Young.
There are a lot of options that will depend on your personal goals and desires. Importantly, the more you can keep the impulsive options from ever entering your awareness, the fewer choices you’ll have to make, and the less effort you’ll need to invest. Beyond that, the greater the difference in value between the goals and temptations you are exposed to, the easier those decisions will be. In the end, resisting through mental effort alone should be the last line of defence, used only when the need for self-control catches you by surprise.