Self-Control Psychology: A Helpful Trick

It happened to me just this morning—a cookie sat right in front of me, begging to be eaten. I know you can’t eat cookies for breakfast (cf. Cookie Crisp), and I know I’m trying to eat more healthfully. Nevertheless, the buttery sweet treat beckoned, and I caved.

coffee-690419_640This is a classic self-control conflict. There was an immediate temptation that would give me momentary pleasure, but it conflicted with a long-term goal to eat more healthfully. That classic tension is too often resolved by giving into the temptation.

But why? It seems irrational. The cookie will make me happy for what, a few minutes? And it comes at the cost of long-term goal progress. The secret lies in how we think about that cookie.

Thinking Far, Thinking Close

Mental exercise time! First, think about what you’ll probably be doing ten minutes from now. Got it? Now think about what you’ll probably be doing 10 years from now.

If you’re like most people, your first thought was full of more concrete details. You could visualize the space you were in, maybe the emotions you’ll be feeling, etc. But as your mind moves out to 10 years from now, things get fuzzy. You probably thought of your life in more abstract terms, focusing on the very basic big-picture elements.

That basic difference in thought is at the heart of construal level theory, which says that we can think about things (or construe them) at a low level (focusing on the concrete, in-the-moment details) or at a high level (focusing on the abstract bigger picture). It turns out all sorts of things can put us in these different mindsets: temporal distance (like we just experienced ourselves), physical distance, observing pictures vs. words, categorizing, etc.

Abstract Thinking, Concrete Thinking, and Self-Control

nature-forest-trees-pathThis whole mental construal thing is one part of what makes self-control so tricky because temptations get us thinking at the “low level.” When I saw that cookie this morning, it sucked me into its low level construal trap. I thought about the concrete, in-the-moment details that made it so enticing. The soft texture, the melty chocolate chips, the perfect sweetness, the way it makes my brain sing, the buttery richness—THROW THAT HEALTH GOAL OUT THE WINDOW; I’M EATING THIS COOKIE!

Thinking about the temptation at that low level distracted me from the bigger picture. It’s hard to see both at the very same time. When you look at a forest from a helicopter, it’s easier to see the whole thing as a forest. But when you’re on the ground[1]  …fearing a tiger will get you even though you know tigers don’t live in Des Moines. Just me?, you can focus on individual trees, losing sight of the big picture.

Get to a Higher Level and Control Yourself!

book-845280_640All of this is great, but let’s look a little more closely at the science. To see whether people could improve their self-control by changing their mindset, Kentaro Fujita and his colleagues ran a bunch of experiments, subtly nudging people to think in more abstract or concrete ways, asking: could a simple change in mindset make temptations less tempting? In one study specifically, they looked at students and the self-control it can take to hunker down and keep studying. When it comes to studying, there are a ton of possible temptations: playing video games, reading Buzzfeed articles, watching TV, etc.[2]  As it turns out, these are also temptations that get in the way of any kind of productivity at all. I, of course, never fall prey to them. Anyone have another cookie?

To get people thinking a little more abstractly about the world or a little more concretely, they asked the students to do a quick mental exercise at the start of the study. The activity was to think about categories associated with 40 different words, but the instructions could come in two slightly different variations.

To get some students to think in more abstract terms, they had a random half of them think about what category each word belonged to (e.g., “pasta is an example of what?”). To get the other students to think in more concrete terms, they had them think about those words as categories of their own and asked them to get more specific (e.g., “an example of pasta is what?”)

Finally, they had these students rate a bunch of words, and some of those words were things that could be temptations that undermine their studying goals (partying, television, etc.). Obviously, everyone is prone to like those temptations, but the question was: could thinking more abstractly diminish the desirability of the temptations?

Indeed it does! Thinking in a more high-level, abstract way led people to rate temptations less positively than thinking in a more low-level, concrete way. In fact, this was especially the case for people with a strong goal to study. In other words, especially when a goal is important to you, thinking more abstractly helps diminish a temptation’s allure.

A Trick from Self-Control Psychology

The next time you feel pulled toward a sinful diet-busting treat or any other temptation, take note of how you’re thinking about the situation. Refocus your attention away from the concrete details that make the thing so tempting and consider the big picture. Pull the camera back like it’s a movie and think more long-term. Maybe even picture yourself from a third person perspective, seeing yourself from the outside.

Heck, you can even try something like the categorization method that the researchers used, and think about what larger category your temptation belongs to. Move away from the details and reconstrue the conflict at a higher level.

All of these little tricks should put you in a frame of mind for more effective self-control. Tomorrow morning for breakfast, it’s back to oatmeal[3]  …with cookies in it!.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   …fearing a tiger will get you even though you know tigers don’t live in Des Moines. Just me?
2.   As it turns out, these are also temptations that get in the way of any kind of productivity at all. I, of course, never fall prey to them. Anyone have another cookie?
3.   …with cookies in it!

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