Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sometimes self-control is belief-control

One of the hardest things for people to do is to resolve the tradeoff between short-term and long-term goals. For example, if you are trying to stick to a diet, it can be difficult to avoid a tempting piece of cake or a fresh gooey cookie straight from the oven.

A paper by Ying Zhang, Szu-Chi Huang and Susan Broniarczyk from the University of Texas in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research examines one way that people help themselves to overcome temptations.

A real temptation is one that has some aspect to it that conflicts directly with a long-term goal you want to satisfy.  If you are dieting, for example, the tempting food may be delicious, but it has a lot of calories in it.  If you are trying to maintain good grades, then a tempting party may be one that is going to be a lot of fun, but it is going to take time away from your studies. 

The authors find that when people are trying to pursue an important long-term goal, they change the way they think about temptations in ways that make the temptations seem more damaging to the long-term goal.

In one study, women were asked to evaluate a fresh chocolate-chip cookie.  Some women had the goal to diet, while others did not.  In addition, some women were told that they could choose to take the cookie with them after the study, while others were just told that they were evaluating the cookie.  The women who did not care about dieting said that the cookie had a moderate number of calories.  Their estimates were about the same as those of women who cared about dieting, but did not think they would be able to take a cookie with them.  Those who cared about dieting and were told they could take a cookie gave much higher estimates of the number of calories.  That is, these women saw the cookie as a much stronger temptation than the other people in the study. In a second study, the authors found that overestimating the calories in a tempting food led dieters to eat less of that food later, so this strategy was successful.

A third study demonstrated a similar finding with the goal of studying.  People who had an active goal of getting good grades estimated the length of a tempting party to be much longer than those who did not have this goal.

Chances are, this strategy is not a conscious one.  That is, people who are trying to diet are not telling themselves that cookies are tempting.  Instead, these findings are another example of the way our perception of the world is changed by our goals.  In previous blog entries, I have talked about how we see things that we want as physically closer to us than things that we do not want.  This research suggests that we also view temptations as more disruptive of our goals than they really are. 

The reason that this strategy is effective is that long-term goals are usually very abstract.  A single cookie or soft drink does not cause our diet to fail.  Instead, it is the accumulation of calories that disrupts a diet.  Overestimating the danger of each snack is one way to make the temptation feel real in the present, which eventually protects the long-term goal.