Even though December 31st isn’t much different from January 1st, it’s a transition that comes with a lot of goal-setting. There’s plenty that social psychology has to say about effective dieting and self-control. In fact, I’ve covered some of that research on this blog before   .
One of the tricky things about striving for your goals is that goals fly in the face of automatic bad habits. So if your goal is to lose weight, you might see a cookie at the dinner table and immediately think, “I want it!” That automatic reaction can be hard to overcome.
Some psychologists, however, have suggested a clever solution: make the good choice the automatic choice.
When Goals Come to Mind Immediately
Fortunately, many studies have shown that if you have a goal, then temptations bring that goal to mind. So when you see a donut, it automatically reminds you of your goal to be healthy. When you’re looking at a really expensive luxury product online, it automatically reminds you of your goal to save money.
These studies use clever methods to see how fast people’s goals come to mind. One of them considered people’s dieting goals. Participants in this study thought they were just playing a simple game in which they saw strings of letters, one after the other. Sometimes those letters formed a word (e.g., “diet”) and sometimes they didn’t (e.g., “deit”). The game was just to push one button if it was an actual word and a different button if it wasn’t a word. They had to do this as fast they could.
There are two important (secret) components of the game. First, when the letters formed an actual word, sometimes it was a dieting-related word (e.g., “slim”) and other times it wasn’t. This allowed the researchers to see if some people were faster to notice diet-related words, compared to other words.
The second important piece was that extra words were flashed for just 50 milliseconds before the string of letters that the participants had to categorize. These subliminal words were either about dieting temptations (e.g., “cake”) or not (e.g., “drugs”).
Throughout the game, people were faster to notice diet-related words after secretly seeing a temptation. In other words, there’s an automatic connection between temptations–like candy–and our broader goal to lose weight.
…Especially for When The Goal is Important
Even though temptations tend to automatically remind us of our goals, it happens for some people more than others. For example, the study about dieting also found that temptations bring goals to mind especially when that goal is really important and when the person is already quite good at self-control.
How Temptation Can Improve Self-Control
The ironic part of all of this is that the very things that tempt us could help us reach our goals if they successfully remind us of those goals.
One study put this to the test. Some participants completed the study in a room with spare issues of Chocolatier magazine strewn about. That, is they were face-to-face with alluring temptation. Other participants, however, were faced with neutral magazines about geography and the economy.
As you’d expect by now, people in the temptation room were quicker to think about their dieting goals. Further, people who had to face temptation also said they were more concerned about abstaining from fattening foods.
These participants were also given the choice between an apple and a Twix as their reward for being in the study. People in the temptation room were more likely to choose the apple over the Twix, compared to people in the neutral room.
All of this is to say that facing temptation automatically reminds you of your goals, which can actually make you better at exerting self-control.
Letting the Environment Remind You
When a behavior gets repeated enough, it forms a habit. Psychologists like Dr. Wendy Wood have noted that repetition forms associations between features of your environment and particular behaviors. This can get really helpful when you have a goal that you don’t want to constantly be reminded of. You just want to habitually do what will help you meet that goal!
For example, if you have a fitness goal, you’ll want to make exercise a habit. When something in the environment remains stable and prompts your exercising behavior, you’re in a good place!
One set of studies by Wood and her colleagues examined college students who transferred between schools. Across a number of habitual behaviors such as exercising or watching TV, those habits stayed strong only when features of the environment stayed the same from one college to the next.
Make it Automatic
I’ll admit–a lot of this is easier said than done. The science, though, makes it clear that making your goals and desired behaviors automatic can be a helpful way to achieve those goals.
Overall, these studies show that this automaticity happens when the goal is important, when you’ve gotten good at striving for the goal, and when the environmental context gives you a nudge.