What role does willpower really play in avoiding temptation?

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Temptation is a part of life, but refusing to give in to some of those urges takes willpower — or does it? A new study looked at the role willpower actually plays in how people maintain their self-control.

The findings reveal that words may actually speak louder than actions! Study authors say choosing to avoid temptation is a greater display of willpower than physically removing the choice altogether.

An international team started their research by examining the story of Odysseus and the Sirens from Greek mythology. In Homer’s epic, the hero must pilot his ship past mythical creatures who lure sailors to their doom by singing. Odysseus has his crew plug their ears with wax and then tie him to the ship so he couldn’t jump overboard.

The team had a simple question, was this a display of willpower or was Odysseus simply unable to give in to temptation?

Previous studies have looked at what tools people use to resist their temptations, such as overeating junk food or constantly scrolling through social media. Although scientists are still unclear why some people display more self-control than others, they knew what methods people use to control their urges.

Study author Jordan Bridges of Rutgers University says one method is called diachronic regulation. This involves changing your situation and creating habits which help to avoid temptation. Essentially, the person is removing willpower from the equation, taking away the choice to do or not do that particular activity.

The second method is synchronic regulation. This tactic relies on deliberate and effortful willpower at the moment a decision needs to be made. Simply put, the cupcake is sitting right in front of your face, and you must fight to keep from eating it.

Does just saying no really work?

There has been tremendous debate over which method is actually effective. Some psychologists and economists believe diachronic regulation is more effective than synchronic regulation — since willpower-driven initiatives like the Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign failed to make measurable improvements in rates of youth tobacco, alcohol, or drug use across America.

However, Bridges and the team argue that previous studies were looking at this debate all wrong. Their study hypothesizes that even purely diachronic strategies display examples of synchronic regulation — since it takes willpower to actually implement these strategies.

“We theorized that it takes willpower to implement temptation-avoidance strategies,” Bridges says in a university release.

To test this theory, the team ran four experiments which asked volunteers to read a short story about a man named Mo. In the story, Mo used different self-control tactics to keep from drinking coffee, eating junk food, using social media, or socializing with others. The participants then had to rate Mo’s level of self-control.

Results show that when the story pulled apart forms of synchronic and diachronic regulation, the volunteers thought that only displaying willpower counted as self-control. This means that the group did not think diachronic strategies (removing the choice) counted as exercising willpower.

When the story mixed both strategies, participants said the examples showed high levels of self-control because they involved synchronic regulation, not the more hands-on behavior of diachronic regulation.

“People often infer that it’s the diachronic strategy doing the self-control work, when really, moments of synchronic regulation are being amplified with diachronic strategy. Understanding the role of willpower in self-control has implications for the way we talk about helping people break habits,” Bridges concludes.

The study is published in the journal Cognition.

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