Fighting willpower’s catch-22

Resisting desires makes ensuing ones more tempting

SAN DIEGO — Willpower comes with a wicked kickback. Exerting self-control saps a person’s mental energy and makes the next desire that inevitably comes along feel more compelling and harder to resist, a study of people’s daily struggles with temptation found.

But people best able to resist eating sweets, going out with friends before finishing work or other temptations find ways to steer clear of such enticements altogether, so that they rarely have to resort to self-control, psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago reported January 28 at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

“Willpower fluctuates throughout the day, rather than being a constant personality trait,” said psychologist and study coauthor Roy Baumeister of Florida State University in Tallahassee, who also summarized at the meeting his recent lab experiments on willpower’s mental effects. “Prior resistance makes new desires seem stronger than usual.”

Hofmann and his colleagues contacted 205 adults in a German city at various times of day for a week. Using handheld devices provided by the researchers, volunteers furnished 10,558 reports about desires they encountered or thought about.

Most self-reported desires didn’t create problems for participants. When desires conflicted with other goals and called for resistance, volunteers’ willpower failed 17 percent of the time, on average.

Desires for food, sleep and sex were rated as most intense. On a daily basis, though, participants most often gave in to urges related to media, such as checking their e-mail, and to working on job-related tasks. Surprisingly, Hofmann said, volunteers usually resisted desires to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol.

Germans’ specific desires may not correspond to those of people in other countries. But the finding that acts of self-control make it harder to resist ensuing desires probably applies to people everywhere, Hofmann proposed.

After having resisted one or more urges, volunteers’ average rate of succumbing to new temptations rose from 15 percent early in the day to 37 percent late in the day.

Participants routinely reported no awareness of when their resistance to desires had ebbed. “There appears to be no signature feeling of when willpower is low,” Baumeister said. For instance, his work has found that fatigue alone doesn’t account for the depletion of resistance.

Scientists have yet to explain precisely how self-control breaks down in the face of urges and desires, remarked psychologist Eli Finkel of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. In an analysis of data on cases of violence committed by one romantic partner against the other, Finkel found that stressful situations triggered physical assaults only among people who were consistently angry to begin with and who lived with irritable, emotionally volatile partners.

Specific mixes of personal vulnerabilities with provoking situations prompt individuals to give in to urges ranging from doughnut binges to spouse abuse, Finkel proposed.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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