Breaking the habit: Self-control strategies require much more than willpower, study finds

PHILADELPHIA — Self-control or self-discipline strategies aimed at improving one’s life — such as eating more vegetables, watching less television, or saving money for retirement — require a lot more than sheer willpower to be effective, according to a new study.

Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and the study’s co-author, says this research comes at a time when self-control strategies have become more important than ever due to growing environmental and societal pressures.

“Temptations are arguably more readily available, more creatively engineered, and cheaper than any time in history,” Duckworth comments in a release by the Association for Psychological Science. “Junk food gets tastier and cheaper every year. And then there’s video games, social media, the list goes on. In parallel, there are public policy issues such as obesity, educational underachievement, and undersaving that result, in part, from failures of self-control.”

After performing a comprehensive review of available research on the topic, Duckworth and her team developed a two-fold approach to successfully changing one’s behavior: an individual looking to change or modify their behavior needs to focus on how they will accomplish and sustain that goal, and then tailor their approach to suit their own individual vulnerabilities and needs.

Researchers observed that, in some cases, the best self-control strategies involve a person changing their environment to create incentives or obstacles that help them exercise self-control. Examples would include using apps that restrict smartphone usage or making sure junk food is not readily available in the home. Other strategies involve changing how one reacts to a situation. An example of this would be a person looking to lose some weight creating an “if-then” plan to anticipate how they would deal with candies or treats being passed out at their place of business. These types of plans make exercising self-control easier to accomplish on a regular basis.

Still, other self-control strategies seem to work more effectively when others implement them for us. For example, an electrical company may be able to lower a person’s electrical usage by emailing them a summary of their monthly energy usage in comparison to their neighbors. Another, more stringent, example would be policymakers adding additional taxes to cigarettes or other tobacco products. Positive incentives, such as rebates for purchasing eco-friendly building materials, also showed promise as a strategy.

Duckworth says the findings and insights can be utilized by policymakers, employers, doctors, educators, and others to help fix societal and cultural problems that are caused, at least partially, by a lack of self-control among the general population.

Furthermore, its important for people to simply understand that relying only on willpower is likely to lead to failure. Just that knowledge alone will be enough to motivate many people to try out different strategies and enjoy greater rates of success.

However, researchers caution that most of the data analyzed for the study involved participants in small groups over short periods of time. They say that additional research is needed to determine if these strategies and ideas would stay effective over long periods of time while applied to a broader group of people.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

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