Have you ever established plans to maintain a healthy weight or to exercise more, only to find that the presence of sweets or the temptation of television steers you away from your lofty goal? If you answered yes to this question, you may not be alone: people might frequently craft flawed predictions of their own ability to exert self-control in future situations, making for disagreements between what is predicted and what is actually achieved when trying to exert self-control. In a new line of research, social psychologists are investigating whether this perceived inaccuracy in self-control predictions—termed “self-control forecasting” in the literature—is a commonly-occurring phenomenon in human behavior and, potentially, a quality that could impact the way that we approach goal-setting and goal-attainment moving forward.
But what exactly is self-control? We define self-control as the process by which one alters one’s immediate thoughts, emotions, or behaviors in order to promote future goals or idealized states . In other words, self-control translates to restraining current impulses (e.g., watching television) in favor of actions that move a person toward a desired future state (e.g., paying bills on time). If there are inaccuracies in the way that one “forecasts” self-control, then there are discrepancies between one’s predicted ability to resist these current impulses in favor of desired future states and one’s actual behavior when confronted with the self-control situation.
Although the qualities of self-control predictions have not been thoroughly investigated in the psychological literature, anecdotally, we know that these predictions may not be consistently accurate. This reasoning largely draws from research on a related subject, that of affective forecasting. Affective forecasting describes a person’s ability to predict his or her future emotional or “affective” states . People have been shown to make flawed predictions of their future affective states, tending to overestimate both the intensity and duration of emotional reactions . Researchers of self-control forecasting attempt to draw this same conclusion about behavioral prediction: could it be possible that humans are just as bad at predicting future ability to exert self-control as they are at predicting future affective states?
An initial exploratory analysis conducted at Duke University suggests that this may be the case. When asked to describe a time in the past in which they made inaccurate self-control predictions, all 192 of the respondents in a recent survey were able to provide rich descriptions of experiences in which they made self-control predictions in response to a temptation that differed from their realized behaviors. That respondents were able to detail instances of self-control forecasting inaccuracies with such rich description and only minimal prompting suggests that such prediction inaccuracies are not unusual to the average person. Extending upon this conclusion, the categories of temptations from the responses were very diverse, with responses that included food, sex, exercise, and relaxation, among others. This diversity suggests that these inaccuracies may characterize self-control predictions in general and not just those associated with a specific type of temptation. Additionally, though they were permitted to respond about a temptation that occurred within the past month, all participants detailed temptations that occurred within the past week, providing further evidence that these prediction inaccuracies are fairly common occurrences. Taken together, these results suggest that inaccurate self-control predictions are not unheard of in a general sample and may actually be commonplace occurrences.
Although self-control forecasting research is still in an early stage, these initial exploratory results are promising. It appears as though forecasts of future self-control abilities are not always accurate and that these inaccuracies are not infrequent occurrences. However, further studies are needed in order to determine the magnitude and frequency of this effect. In the meantime, many of us can at least be reassured that we are not alone in our self-control prediction inaccuracies, lofty self-improvement goals be damned.
Andrew hails from Charlotte, NC, where he lived before shuffling slightly north to receive a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University. At Duke, he completed research investigating social psychological phenomena related to the self and self-regulation. He is currently a graduate student in the PhD program in social psychology at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the social side of self-regulatory functioning, as well as how self-implemented goals and mental ideations about identity affect one’s ability to achieve appropriate self-regulatory control. Outside of the lab, Andrew enjoys going on runs in the sweltering southern heat and cooking dishes that have been described by critics as “edible.”
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