Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 2)


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It’s the 25th and Thanksgiving is tomorrow. From experience, I know the gateway holiday, as I lovingly call it, can sink a diet faster than a German U-Boat. You think you’re being healthy, eating candied yams and green beans covered in cream soup, but really you might as well open a pint of Ben and Jerry’s because you’re OD’ing on sugar just the same. Now, I’m not here to lessen your enjoyment of the holiday. I, too, will be stuffing my face with stuffing tomorrow. But there are some tips and tricks we can glean from social psych research to help us survive the holidays without elastic waistbands. Today, we are going to discuss the wisdom, and the wonder, of counteractive self-control.

Counteractive self-control is a self-control strategy where people use a temptation to remind them of the goal they are supposed to be pursuing, thus counteracting the temptation and causing them to act in a goal-consistent way.1 If you ever posted a picture of yourself looking fire in a bikini on the refrigerator to remind you of your diet when you want to eat, congratulations, because you are already a counteractive self-control master. There are two kinds of counteractive control: explicit and implicit. Explicit counteractive self-control comes online purposefully, when people feel the need to bolster the value of their goals in order to overcome the relative allure of the temptation. Implicit counteractive self-control, however, happens without conscious intent. People who are skilled self-regulators tend to automatically increase the value of their goals when they are confronted with temptations to ensure that they are not distracted from their pursuits.2,3 Good for those people. The rest of us want pumpkin pie.

So, it’s lucky for us that we too can engage in counteractive self-control, albeit with more deliberate intention. The first step to counteractive control is to recognize that a self-control dilemma exists in the first place.4 A self-control dilemma is a situation in which you want to practice self-control in order to work towards a goal, but you are tempted to act in a goal-inconsistent way by some short-term desire that can be satisfied now.5 Once you realize that your goal commitment is threatened, you must take action by engaging in counteractive self-control in one of three ways: 1) Bolster the value of the goal, 2) Offer yourself a delayed reward, or, 3) Self-impose a penalty.6 You can also precommit to indulge later if your problem is that you don’t enjoy yourself enough on the holidays, but then why are you reading this post you paragon of regulatory success?7

1) Bolster your goal- This is the idea behind implicit counteractive self-control. People automatically enhance the value of their goal when they are tempted to abandon it.8 However, you can also explicitly bolster the value of your goal. Goals that are important and cognitively accessible are more likely to appear valuable, and to trigger cognitive biasing toward your goal.9 Mental contrasting procedures can help people to elaborate on their goals, increasing commitment and specificity, thus increasing the accessibility.10 However, goals must be important and temptations must be strong in order for counteractive self-control to come online at all, so don’t expect this to work for that half-assed dieting goal you formed on Monday and barely considered before being confronted with all of your favorite foods.11

2) Offer yourself a delayed reward- This is a popular strategy with moms and cigarette smokers: Do something now and you can have something later. In order to capitalize on the efficacy of the reward, people tend to offer themselves bigger rewards as self-control dilemmas become more difficult for them.12 So, for a self-control dilemma that is relatively easy to overcome, you may reward yourself with the new Adele album, while a relatively difficult dilemma may prompt a bigger, more desirable reward, like a vacation. By delaying the reward, you make the reward contingent on some goal-relevant action you will perform.12 In turn, this makes the goal-relevant action important, because it will lead to the coveted reward.12

3) Self-imposing a penalty- This is an incredibly effective, but less popular, strategy. Instead of rewarding yourself for good behavior, people who use penalties punish themselves for bad behavior. In cases of self-imposed penalties, people may precommit to losing certain privileges, or to having to perform specific unpleasant actions, if they fail to accomplish an important goal. For instance, you may decide that failing to stick to your monthly budget should be penalized with a monetary donation to a charity for a cause you hate. The desire to avoid the unpleasant penalty increases the value of the goal-relevant action, as this is the path to avoidance.13

While implicit counteractive self-control seems like a cruel cosmic joke, bestowed on those of us who are already killing it, explicit self-control can work for everyone, no matter how good a self-regulator they are. With all of the tempting foods we encounter as the year winds down, we must remind ourselves of our goals now, instead of waiting to commit to act on them until next year. But, it is also important to avoid overcontrol. The holidays are a time to enjoy ourselves, and each other, so make sure to balance your diet and your joy this season! Happy Turkey Day y’all!

  1. Trope, Y., & Fishbach, A. (2000). Counteractive self-control in overcoming temptation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(4), 493.
  2. Fishbach, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2003,
  3. Fishbach, A., & Shah, J. Y. (2006). Self-control in action: implicit dispositions toward goals and away from temptations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90(5), 820.
  4. Myrseth, K. O. R., & Fishbach, A. (2009). Self-control a function of knowing when and how to exercise restraint. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(4), 247-252.
  5. Kroese, F. M., Evers, C., & De Ridder, D. T. (2009). How chocolate keeps you slim. The effect of food temptations on weight watching goal importance, intentions, and eating behavior. Appetite, 53(3), 430-433.
  6. Fishbach, A., & Trope, Y. (2005). The substitutability of external control and self-control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(3), 256-270.
  7. Kivetz, R., & Simonson, I. (2002). Self-control for the righteous: Toward a theory of precommitment to indulgence. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), 199-217.
  8. Fishbach, A., Zhang, Y., & Trope, Y. (2010). Counteractive evaluation: Asymmetric shifts in the implicit value of conflicting motivations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 29-38.
  9. Fishbach, A., & Trope, Y. (2007). Implicit and explicit mechanisms of counteractive self-control. Handbook of motivation science, 281-294.
  10. Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Self‐regulation strategies improve self‐discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31(1), 17-26.
  11. Fishbach, A., & Converse, B. A. (2010). Walking the line between goals and temptations: Asymmetric effects of counteractive control. Self control in society, mind, and brain, 389-407.
  12. Trope, Y., & Fishbach, A. (2005). Going Beyond the Motivation Given: Self-Control and Situational Control 0ver Behavior. Psychology, 7(3), 417-458.
  13. Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224.


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


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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.

Getting ish done: Setting and achieving realistic goals

Summer is a time when people set new goals for themselves. It means more time for exercising, gardening, catching up with friends, or organizing your place. It could also mean traveling, more work, or any combination of these activities. But setting goals does not guarantee success of goals…

Goals Pie Chart
Why is it easier to achieve some goals than others? Aside from the obvious—some goals are genuinely more difficult to achieve, like buying a home compared to earning a free coffee after purchasing 12 coffees prior—other factors may be influencing your success. Using goal research, the following questions serve as a primer to increase your likelihood of successful goal pursuit.
1. How is the goal defined? The more concretely a goal is defined, the easier it is to measure progress toward goal achievement. For example, let’s imagine that someone has a goal to eat healthier. An admirable and respectable goal, indeed, but what does eating healthier mean to this person? What would success for this goal look like? The more specifically the goal is defined, the easier it is to track progress toward goal achievement. Maybe eating healthier means eating a banana every day. Maybe it means limiting dessert to twice a week. Regardless of the form they take, setting tangible markers of progress increases your likelihood of success [1].

2. Do you think you can do it? Setting realistic goals is not new advice, but it bears repeating. Your expectations of goal achievement influence your progress toward and your commitment to your goal. If you expect yourself to crash and burn, then you probably will. Many of us have experienced this firsthand. If you have a goal of reducing social media usage, but you doubt that you can break up with Facebook, then readjusting your goal to account for your own preferences is recommended. Sometimes this translates into setting smaller and manageable goals first, and then working up to a greater, and ultimately desired, end goal. Maybe you strive to reduce your Facebook usage gradually, or you eliminate Twitter or Tumblr first, for example.

3. How close are you to achieving this goal? Beginning a new goal versus being near goal completion typically requires different strategies. People often adjust their goal pursuit strategies without realizing it depending on the particular stage of goal pursuit. For example, some research suggests that people exaggerate any progress made in the beginning of pursuit to make success seem more attainable and downplay progress toward the end when close to goal completion to highlight the need for continued effort [2]. Other work suggests that perceiving progress toward a goal (i.e., believing that you’re closer to goal completion) leads to relaxed pursuit of the goal [3], also known as coasting. Coasting is when people don’t feel the need to work as hard toward the goal, because they’re doing just fine [4]. Both of these processes occur at different times depending on the type of goal you have (see questions 1 and 4).

4. Does this goal require maintenance? Some goals are obviously completed once you achieve them. Earning a degree, for example. While achieving this goal may have required maintaining certain behaviors over an extended period, goal achievement is obvious and clear-cut: you have your degree. Not surprisingly, many goals are not like this. Health goals are a prototypical maintenance goal. They’re never truly completed. Even if an initial first part has been achieved, such as reaching a goal weight, the maintenance phase will likely continue indefinitely, which is why continued success is difficult without additional reinforcements (to be discussed in a later post!). Maintenance goals often require rewards, consistent checking in with yourself about your progress, and, sometimes, flexibility regarding the means to goal achievement.

Goals are complicated. Rarely, if ever, do people pursue a single goal at any time [5]. We are continuously juggling and re-prioritizing our goals, big and small, every day of our lives. Doing so is undoubtedly hard work, and these questions certainly do not capture every element of goal pursuit. However, if you’re struggling to finish something or you need a refresher, ask yourself the questions above. They’re a good place to start.

1 – Kivetz, R., Urminsky, O., & Zheng, Y. (2006). The goal-gradient hypothesis resurrected: Purchase acceleration, illusionary goal progress, and customer retention. Journal of Marketing Research, 43, 39-58.
2 – Huang, S. C., Zhang, Y., & Broniarczyk, S. M. (2012). So near and yet so far: The mental representation of goal progress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 225-241.
3 – Fishbach, A., & Dhar, R. (2005). Goals as excuses or guides: The liberating effect of perceived goal progress on choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 32, 370-377.
4 – Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F. (2011). Self-regulation of action and affect. In K.D. Vohs & R.F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (2nd ed.) (3-21). New York: Guilford Press.
5 – Kruglanski, A. W., Shah, J. Y., Fishbach, A., Friedman, R., Chun, W. Y., & Sleeth-Keppler, D. (2002). A theory of goal systems. Advances in experimental social psychology, 34, 331-378.