How Overconfidence In Willpower Makes Us Fail And What To Do Instead
We’ve put willpower on a pedestal.
You want to reach your goals, make healthy changes, and lead a better life. And you’ve been told that willpower is the answer to these problems. If you’ve failed, it’s probably because you didn’t exercise enough self-control.
We also see willpower as a mark of a strong character. An enviable trait to have. We might even think less of a person that can’t control their impulses.
Change is hard. But one of the big reasons we fail is because of our overconfidence in willpower.
We seem to have an inability to accurately asses how much self-control we really have. And maybe we should be focusing on a different strategy all together.
Our Self-Restraint Bias
There are a lot of reasons why we need to rethink what we know about willpower. But researchers recognize that it’s important ability when we try achieve resolutions, change our behavior, or improve ourselves.
The problem is, we’re just not as good at it as we want to believe.
Psychology has long known that we have a tendency to overestimate our skills. For instance, when it comes to things like driving, we all think we have above average ability.
When it comes to self-control, we do the same thing. Psychologists even have a term for this. Self-restraint bias.
A study led by researcher Loran Nordgren took a closer look at the implications this holds for our decision making. Here’s what she has to say:
People are not good at anticipating the power of their urges, and those who are the most confident about their self-control are the most likely to give into temptation.
It seems that, generally speaking, those who are most confident about their willpower, are the most likely to fail.
Our Impulses Are Stronger Than We Realize
It’s not that we completely lack self-control. But the experts found that we’re more likely to expose ourselves to temptation because of our overconfidence.
The researchers say that the problem occurs because when our basic needs are met, we fail to recognize how strong our visceral impulses can be.
When you’re full, you don’t believe you’ll have a problem resisting treats at the office. But when you take a break after a few hours and find a doughnut staring you down, you’ll probably sing a different tune.
Over 4 different experiments, Loran and her team demonstrated our inability to recognize how tough it is to resist impulses when we’re hungry, tired, or lustful.
In one such experiment, the team recruited a number of smokers who were trying to stop. So far they had been able to successfully quit for three weeks.
The researchers asked them how confident they were about controlling themselves. They then followed up 4 months later. Sure enough, those who rated their self-control the highest, were the most likely to have relapsed.
Another experiment polled students entering or leaving the cafeteria.
They were told to rank 7 different snack bars from their least to most favorite. They could then pick one of the bars. If they returned it in a weeks time they could keep it, along with a 4 dollar prize.
The students that were leaving the cafeteria (and presumably full) rated their self-control higher and choose their favorite snack bar when compared to students who had just arrived (and hungry). They were also more likely to eat that bar in the following week.
A Better Solution: Avoid Temptation
So we can be a pretty bad judge of our own willpower. So maybe we shouldn’t be relying on it. But Loran gives us another solution:
The key is simply to avoid any situations where vices and other weaknesses thrive and, most importantly, for individuals to keep a humble view of their willpower.
It may sound simple, but other research says Loran is spot on. People who are more successful at avoiding temptation are more likely to hit their goals.
There are a number of ways to avoid temptation, and most of them deal with controlling your environment or planning. Most of these strategies I would label as “willpower management”, as they don’t directly involve the use of resisting those short term impulses.
If we’re really want to succeed in making changes in our behavior, we have to acknowledge our limitations. And the first step is recognizing the fact that self-control is tough. And we’re not great at it.
It seems willpower and self-control should be used a last resort. Not the first line of defense.