Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 1)

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Image from Frosted Events

As the holidays approach, and the grocery store shelves fill up with fattening treats, many of us are faced with a self-control crisis between our desire to eat healthy, and our desire to eat decadently. While indulging in some candy on Halloween isn’t going to be sending you into a downward spiral, a consistently unhealthy diet can lead to problems with weight and/or illness.

Luckily, social psychologists have uncovered some strategies that can be used to help bolster your self-control, throughout the holiday season and into the happy new year. From now until New Year’s, we’ll be exploring ways in which social psychology findings can apply to real-life struggle city.

Implementation intentions are if-then plans where a person specifies a situation and a response he or she will use to act in accordance with an important goal.1 For example, I may form an intention to make healthier eating choices by planning to eat a piece of fruit every time I want to eat ice cream. This may not seem that much more effective than just forming a goal intention, like a goal to eat less ice cream, but a great deal of research suggests otherwise.2 Compared with people who only have goal intentions, people who form implementation intentions achieve their goals more, take opportunities to pursue their goals faster and are more likely to notice those opportunities to pursue goals in the first place.3,4,5

Researchers have suggested a few reasons why implementation intentions work. One is that by specifying the critical situation and the critical response, it helps to keep your goal and your goal-related behavior easily accessible, or in other words, it stays on your mind.6 This heightened awareness makes you more likely to notice when the critical situation arises, and more likely to make the desired, goal-consistent response you planned to make.7 Another, is that forming implementation intentions makes goal-consistent behavior automatic, so that it can initiate even if you aren’t thinking about doing it.8 Because of this, Gollwitzer and colleagues theorize that implementation intentions actually help to avoid the need for self-control, because the situation cues the correct behavior instead of the person having to summon it up on the spot.9,10

In addition to the fact that implementation intentions are efficacious in goal attainment, they appear to be effective for everyone. Unlike many other strategies, there’s no evidence they depend on your normal level of self-control. Even people with low self-control can successfully use implementation intentions to avoid being derailed from their goals. It appears that implementation intentions may also help to buffer against depletion effects, or situations in which one has less self-control because they just exerted self-control in another task.11 And, luckily, it can motivate people to accomplish difficult and unpleasant goals where many other strategies fail.12

So, if you want to avoid eating a veritable Reese’s Pumpkin patch this Hallows Eve, you may want to form some implementation intentions. If you are tempted to eat junk food, then you will come get some self-control tips from Social PsyQ instead! Stay tuned for more Psy Applied!

  1. Sheeran, P., Webb, T. L., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2005). The interplay between goal intentions and implementation intentions. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(1), 87-98.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.
  1. Oettingen, G., Hönig, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2000). Effective self-regulation of goal attainment. International Journal of Educational Research, 33(7), 705-732.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1993). Goal achievement: The role of intentions. European Review of Social Psychology, 4(1), 141-185.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493.
  1. Faude-Koivisto, T. S., Wuerz, D., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Implementation intentions: The mental representations and cognitive procedures of if-then planning.
  1. Sheeran, P., & Orbell, S. (2000). Using implementation intentions to increase attendance for cervical cancer screening. Health Psychology, 19(3), 283.
  1. Sheeran, P., & Orbell, S. (1999). Implementation intentions and repeated behaviour: Augmenting the predictive validity of the theory of planned behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 29(23), 349-369.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M., Fujita, K., & Oettingen, G. (2004). Planning and the implementation of goals.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Schaal, B. (1998). Metacognition in action: The importance of implementation intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2(2), 124-136.
  1. Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2003). Can implementation intentions help to overcome ego-depletion?. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39(3), 279-286.
  1. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Brandstätter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 186.
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