Today millions of Americans will pull out their lists of New Year's resolutions, full of intentions to control their many temptations, from one-night stands to junk food to alcohol to smoking.
And 88 percent of those resolutions will probably end in failure.
We spend as much half of our waking lives feeling desires, and are able to resist about 38 percent of them.
That's a lot of resisting.
But what are the costs of all that self-control? Roy Baumeister and colleagues suggest that self-control acts like a muscle; it's a limited resource that can get tired from too much exertion. They argue that after people exert self-control, they enter a state called "ego depletion" in which the will is weakened.
This has wide-ranging consequences: Depleted people are more likely to overeat, display more aggression, cheat on their partners, spend more money impulsively, make irrational and uncompromising decisions, and generally respond in a myriad of unhealthy ways.
What's the cause of these depletion effects? The long-held assumption is that depletion weakens the capacity for restraint, but leaves feelings and desires unaffected. In other words, our wellspring of desires and urges are separate from self-control and restraint.
New research suggests we need to rethink this assumption.
Across a number of unpublished studies in a wide range of real-life settings, Kathleen Vohs and colleagues found that controlling our impulses simultaneously weakens our restraint and intensifies our urges.
Let's dig in.
In their first study, they beeped people several times a day for a week and asked them to report their urges and whether they were trying to control them. The more frequently and recently people attempt to restrain their desires, the more strongly they felt other-- and very different -- desires. This suggests that resisting temptation intensifies our desires and emotions more generally.
While this is interesting, it's merely correlational. They didn't manipulate variables to see what's really causing what. So across seven more studies, Vohs and colleagues turned to laboratory experimentation.
They intentionally depleted people in a number of ways, from telling them to not think about a white bear (thought suppression) to the Stroop task, in which they had to inhibit the printed color in order to arrive at the correct answer (the actual color of the word), to having them read aloud dull prose about scientists' lives while asking them to inject emotional enthusiasm into it.
Across all of their experiments, those who were depleted reported stronger urges and emotions than non-depleted individuals, from experiencing stronger emotional reactions to an upsetting film clip, to making stronger evaluations of pleasant and unpleasant images and unfamiliar Chinese characters, to being less able to tolerate cold water on the cold pressor task, to feeling stronger urges to eat cookies, which caused them to actually eat more cookies during the experiment.
This striking consistency across a number of different depleting tasks and outcomes points to the inescapable conclusion: self-control intensifies desire.
The researchers conclude,
"It may seem a cruel irony that temptations become more intense just when one's guard is down. Yet recognizing the intertwined natures of these processes may help people come to manage their motivated behaviors more effectively."
Easier said than done! Their findings blew my mind, so I emailed Kathleen Vohs and asked her if her research really suggests that we should just succumb to our desires and stop trying so hard to resist temptation. To which she responded:
"The practical implications are exactly as you laid out -- if you are trying to control urges, they might come back stronger. Or you might develop or potentiate other urges... it's a difficult nut to crack, that's for sure."
Their research is consistent with other research on social norms and addiction. Conforming to social norms comes at a cost. Most social groups and religions discourage selfish behavior, so people tend to retrain their egotistical impulses. However, research shows that efforts at controlling self-presentation-- such as presenting yourself modestly to a friend or stranger -- paradoxically weakens the capacity for impression management, causing people to subsequently talk too much, make overly or insufficiently intimate disclosures, and increase their egotistical arrogance.
Other research suggests that drug withdrawal increases negative affect and the very urges that make relapse more likely. During withdrawal, smokers experience intensified emotional reactions to other environmental events as well, consistent with the findings by Vohs and colleagues that self-control intensifies urges and feelings more generally.
Look, don't get me wrong: our human capacity for self-control is an important resource. We absolutely need to restrain many of our momentary desires in order to achieve our longer-term goals. Self-control is associated with a number of positive outcomes in life, including healthy psychological adjustment, secure relationship attachments, better school grades, and other favorable psychological states. Indeed, understanding how self-control works, how it can be depleted, and how it can be strengthened, has immense practical value for everyday life and success.
But these latest results suggest that willpower is even more complicated than previously assumed, and restraint and desire are far more intertwined than previously thought.
Perhaps we need to completely rethink the whole idea of New Year's resolutions.
Instead of coming up with that list of desires you're going to attempt to control in 2014, perhaps you should instead come up with a list of delicious desires you're perfectly happy succumbing to. If anything, the latest research suggests this will increase the chances you'll have more willpower to restrain yourself from the other temptations that truly matter to you.
© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved