Thursday, March 22, 2012

Structure your world for success by thinking abstractly

A recurring theme in this blog is that self-control is hard.  Tempting short-term goals often get in our way when we want to achieve long-term goals.  If you are trying to lose weight, then it is not easy to pass up some fries to go with that lunch or a rich piece of cake to reward yourself for a hard day.  If you need to study for an exam in order to keep up your grades, it is tempting to take a break to watch a great movie on TV or to join your friends at a party.

One way to help you to control yourself is to set up your environment in advance to make those temptations less tempting.  If you don’t keep tempting foods at home, then you are less likely to break down and eat something that will break your diet.  If you bring your books to the library, you make it harder to give in to the call of the television. 

When you work to create an environment that supports your long-term goals, you are engaging in prospective self-control.  This kind of planning for the future helps you to achieve your goals by minimizing the number of temptations that cross your path and by helping you to prepare in advance for those that do emerge. 

A paper by Kentaro Fujita and Joseph Roberts in the November, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology examines one factor that may make people more likely to engage in this advance planning. 

These authors suggest that when people think about a situation more abstractly, they may be more willing to structure their world in ways that help them to satisfy long-term goals than when they think about a situation concretely. 

Take the example of dieting to lose weight.  If you think about eating specifically, then it gets easy to think about the wonderful tastes and sensations you may have to give up by dieting successfully.  If you think abstractly, though, then the temptations of specific foods are not so tempting.  That may enable you to put structures in place to help you remove those temptations in the future. 

In one study, the authors used a technique to get people thinking abstractly or concretely.  In this particular study, they started by having people think about why they might perform a number of activities (which tends to focus people on abstract reasons) or how they might perform the activity (which tends to focus people on specific means for achieving goals).  Then, people were asked if they would participate in a future study that would take place over three sessions.  At each session, they would be given a snack as part of their compensation for being in the study.  Some of the snacks were healthy (like fruit) and some were unhealthy (like cake).  People were also told that they could opt to select all three snacks in advance or they could simply choose the snack they wanted in each session.

Lots of research suggests that when you make a series of choices for yourself in advance, it is easier to maintain self-control.  For one thing, making the choice in advance makes the possible temptations feel less tempting.  For another, making a whole set of choices at once helps you to see how each of the individual selections might get in the way of your success at the long-term goal. 

In this study, people who were led to think abstractly were more likely to opt to make all three choices at once than were the people who were led to think concretely.  So, those who thought abstractly did more planning for the future than the ones who thought concretely. 

The authors did a second study that obtained a similar result.  In this study, they used a different technique to get people to think abstractly (thinking about common uses for a set of items or uses that were specific to each item in a set), and a different means of self-control (the size of a punishment for failing to show up for an experiment).  People who were led to think abstractly wanted to give themselves larger punishments in the future than those who were led to think concretely.

Putting this all together, this study adds something nice to work on how people satisfy goals.  Often, we worry about how we might handle temptations when they arise.  This work suggests that if we think abstractly when prepare ourselves to achieve our long-term goals, we may adopt strategies that maximize our chances to succeed.

Think abstractly and maximize your chances to see the latest blog entries as they get put up.