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.


Obesity and public health campaigns: Finding the Holy Grail

Obesity is a disease. It has been since June 2013, at least according to the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA formally recognized obesity as a disease with the intention that such a classification would prompt additional funding for obesity research. However, a set of studies published in Psychological Science1 earlier this year suggests that designating obesity as a disease without considering the psychological consequences has a variety of positive and negative implications for obese and average-weight individuals.

Across a set of three studies where more than 50% of the 700+ participants were classified as overweight or obese according to the Body Mass Index (BMI), psychology researchers Crystal Hoyt, Jeni Burnette, and Lisa Auster-Gussman found that obese individuals reported significant decreases in weight concern and body dissatisfaction when they received the message that obesity was a disease, whereas average weight individuals demonstrated no such pattern when exposed to the same message. At first glance, this finding suggests that the “obesity as a disease” model is effective at increasing body satisfaction and, perhaps, decreasing internalized stigma.

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Example of weight management-focused (incremental mindset) public health strategy

At a recent talk I attended, Dr. Burnette discussed these findings as well as related findings from some more recent studies about the relationship between the obesity as disease message and an entity mindset. An entity mindset is the belief that an ability or characteristic, such as intelligence or weight, is fixed and not malleable as a result of effort or behavior change2,3. Burnette suggested that believing obesity is a disease implies that weight is static, that it’s not people’s lack of willpower or behavior making them obese, but rather, their genes and physiologies. This notion seems to decrease anti-fat prejudice and blame placed on obese individuals4. This approach seems promising: reducing stigma and blame, as well as increasing the likelihood of research funding.

There’s a catch, of course. In addition to the decreased weight concern and body dissatisfaction, obese individuals who saw the disease message were also more likely to make hypothetical unhealthy food choices, unlike average weight individuals or obese individuals exposed to the weight-management control. The researchers suggest that these food choices may be a downstream consequence of the disease label and the entity mindset it may induce. That is, if obesity indicates a physiological malfunction, thus making weight control efforts ineffective, why bother trying? The very message that decreases blame seems to reduce motivation to manage weight, too.

The belief that weight loss efforts are ineffective for obese individuals is not completely implausible. Food researcher Traci Mann and fellow obesity researchers have found that long-term weight loss for obese folks is the exception, not the norm. Receiving the message that obesity is a disease and fixed may be affirming to an obese person who was previously told that weight loss attempts were a personal failing. Regardless, it could be argued that the positive impact of affirmation and acceptance is diminished if it’s accompanied by regular unhealthy food choices.

In contrast, obese participants who were shown the control message of standard weight management strategies demonstrated a different pattern. Their concern for their weight did not decrease, but nor did they subsequently choose higher-calorie, unhealthy foods. The implication, which the researchers mention, is that some level of mild body dissatisfaction may be motivating to eat healthier foods and to be more active. But these findings present something of a double-edged sword, as Dr. Burnette mentioned at her recent talk.

The weight management (control) message may have induced an incremental mindset of weight, the alternative to an entity mindset about weight. An incremental mindset affords people more agency by implying that weight can be altered, presumably through behavior change. Accompanying empowerment, however, is the shift in blame away from an obese person’s genes and onto them and their behavior. As Burnette said, promoting either mindset to obese and non-obese individuals alike can have negative effects.

So, what’s a public health professional to do, particularly when obesity has already been officially labeled a disease? It’s exactly that sort of question that Burnette and her collaborators would like to pursue in future research. Specifically, how should public health messages be structured to motivate and promote an incremental mindset for obese individuals without the body image costs and blame? No obvious or simple answers exist yet. Burnette says that the answer to that question would be “the Holy Grail.”

Anyone out there come across research that might answer this or have a suggestion? Post it in the comments!



1Hoyt, C.L., Burnette, J.L., & Auster-Gussman, L. (2014). “Obesity is a disease”: Examining the self-regulatory impact of this public-health message. Psychological Science, 25, 997-1002.

2 Dweck, C.S., Chiu, C.Y., & Hong, Y.Y. (1995). Implicit theories and their role in judgments and reactions: A world from two perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 267-285.

3 Burnette, J.L., O’Boyle, E., VanEpps, E.M., Pollack, J.M., & Finkel, E.J. (2013). Mindsets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 655-701.

4Monterosso, J., Royzman, E.B., & Schwartz, B. (2005). Explaining away responsibility: Effects of scientific explanation on perceived culpability. Ethics & Behavior, 15, 139-158.