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.

 

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Justifying indulgence on Thanksgiving

Louis CK’s take on Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving! That time of year when you feel that your indulgence is somewhat justified and the guilt for everything you ate is mitigated by the tradition of the holiday. If I just described you, don’t be alarmed. You are certainly not alone. Thanksgiving is a prime day for rationalizing indulgences for people who may otherwise feel guilty about blowing their diet. Recent research finds that people typically rely on six different explanations to justify eating (a lot of) unhealthy foods1, all of which are relevant to Thanksgiving dinner:

  1. Availability of unhealthy food: Unhealthy foods abound and are difficult to avoid. Those green beans just pale in comparison to the mashed potatoes.
  2. Intentions to compensate for the unhealthy eating in the near future: You make firm plans to exercise regularly for the next week and to limit your consumption of leftovers.
  3. Indulgence as an exception to the norm: Thanksgiving is just one day a year, after all. You never eat pumpkin pie or dessert, for that matter. And when was the last time you had your uncle’s stuffing?
  4. Feeling deserving of the unhealthy food: Related to all of the above and then some. You have been eating healthy foods consistently lately, and you just got a promotion at work. Plus, having to interact with some of your extended family makes you feel deserving of any prize.
  5. Curiosity-compelled indulgence: I don’t know exactly what this cookie is, but it looks and smells delicious. I have to try it!
  6. Irresistibility of the foods: Who can turn down sweet potato casserole? Everything smells fantastic!

Honestly, indulging occasionally shouldn’t have to be guilt-inducing. Thanksgiving is a special occasion involving atypical foods and eating companions who may live far away. The act of eating is social and pleasurable and should be enjoyed. However, if you’re someone who finds that the holidays are a more permanent setback for your health goal, you are not doomed. Strategies exist for maintaining your health goals and still enjoying (yes!) your Thanksgiving meal. Check out this Slate article for some tips by Brian Wansink, an expert food researcher, on how to manage your eating.

Did the researchers miss any justifications? What have you noticed at previous Thanksgiving meals?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


1 Taylor, Webb, & Sheeran. (2013). ‘I deserve a treat!’: Justifications for indulgence undermine the translation of intentions into action. British Journal of Social Psychology.