Willpower used to be thought of as a depleting resource: The more we used it, the less of it we had left, like a muscle that became fatigued from over use. Willpower is cognitively demanding and resisting the urge to eat a tempting food or surfing the internet, for example, depleted our cognitive resources making less of them available for other situations where self control might be required.
But recently, classic willpower-as-a-depleting-resource studies have come under question when they failed to replicate. More recent research has found that people who have good willpower are actually good at avoiding temptation in the first place. They are hardly using willpower at all because they've put plans in place to minimize temptation. Like not buying that box of cookies in the first place. This is called "pre-commitment" because, by minimizing temptations, you're choosing from a more limited menu of choices.
Self-control, or willpower, has significant psychological costs and an emerging theory posits that we fail when the costs of exercising self-control outweigh the perceived benefits. Pre-commitment is a strategy that many people use to reduce the need for self-control. Every time you choose not to buy that box of cookies, you're using a pre-commitment strategy: By not buying the cookies, you're avoiding the temptation at home. By making sure you having everything you need before you start working, you're using a pre-commitment strategy: you're minimizing the possibility of getting side tracked by something unrelated to your work, like surfing the internet.
Here's a study that aimed to quantify the cost of self-control under two conditions: An incentive condition and a stress condition.
Over a series of five studies, 138 participants who were on a diet to maintain or lose weight and had not eaten for 3 - 4 hours were given $10 with which to bid to avoid having a tempting food placed in front of them for 30 minutes. This was the control condition. Study 2 was the incentive condition, in addition to the bidding, the participants were told that they would lose a $15 bonus if they ate the food. This was the incentive condition. In study 3, in addition to the bidding, the participants immersed their forearm in ice-cold water for 3 minutes, a well-accepted way by researchers to increase stress. This was called the stress condition. Study 4 combined both the incentive and stress conditions. In all studies, the participants were left alone in the room with the tempting food and the measure of interest was whether they ate the food.
Average Bid Amounts
% Ate Food
In study 1, the control condition, 22% of the participants succumbed to temptation and ate all or part of the food.
In study 2, the incentive condition, none of them ate the food, but the $15 offer increased their bids. The higher bids by this group suggests they were willing to spend more money to keep to their goal of not eating the food because the costs of losing the $15 incentive was higher than the benefits of eating the tempting food.
In study 3, the stress group, their bids were double that of the control group, an indication of the cost to them of self-control. However, similar to the control group, only 23 percent of the stress participants ate the tempting food.
In study 4, the incentive + stress group, there was no difference in the bids between this group and the incentive group. And, like Study 2, none of them ate the food.
The researchers then wanted to know whether participants who ate the tempting food had placed higher bids than those who hadn't. And that is exactly what they found: The bids of those who ate the tempting food were significantly higher than the bids of those who hadn't eaten the food (~ $4 vs ~ $2). "Those participants who ate the food were willing to pay significantly more to avoid temptation relative to participants who did not eat the food."
The researchers also found that the bids by study 3 participants (the stress group) were correlated with their stress level following the immersion in ice-water, "suggesting that subjective stress was related to individuals’ willingness-to-pay to avoid temptation."
The researchers "reasoned that more experience (or success) avoiding temptation might relate to an individual’s self-control costs. And that's what they found, that "participants [who had been] on a diet for a longer length of time tended to pay less to avoid temptation," perhaps because they had more experience with and, consequently, were better at resisting temptation.
To test this further, they conducted another study (Study 5) with a new set of participants. They first "rated a series of snack foods on how healthy, tasty, and tempting they were, which allowed [the researchers] to identify a low, medium and high tempting food for each individual. The participants [then] "reported their willingness-to-pay (from $0-$10) to avoid each of the three food items for varying amounts of time (1-60 minutes). Indeed, the more tempting the food, the more the participants were willing to pay to avoid it. And they were willing to pay more to avoid the tempting foods for longer periods of time.
As humans, we like to set ambitious long-term goals but have a hard time following through. We make choices that undermine or thwart our goals. That's because when we're setting goals, we're driven by the potential reward, but when it comes down to execution, we're driven by the effort we have to put in. Using willpower to achieve our goals is effortful and aversive. Indeed, "self-control failures may be conceptualized as a rational decision that emerges when the costs of exercising control exceed the relative perceived benefits."
These studies attempted to quantify the cost of exercising self control to avoid a tempting food. They found that people were willing to pay more to avoid temptation.
We fail when the costs of exercising self-control outweigh the perceived benefits
A feature of these studies was that the bids were taken continuously over a 30 minute period. If "self-control becomes more difficult as it is continuously exerted [consistent with the willpower-as-a- depleting-resource hypothesis], ... [we] "would expect ... self-control costs [or bids] to increase as the experiment progressed. The researchers found that the bids did not increase over time, contrary to the depletion view of willpower and leading to the interpretation that "individuals need not necessarily experience decrements in control performance as long as the perceived benefit of deploying control continues to outweigh the cost."
Pre-commitment, quantified here as bids to prevent having a tempting food placed in front them, appears to be an effective strategy. In fact, a previous study has found that pre-commitment as a way to avoid temptation is the preferred strategy of highly impulsive people. Of course, it requires that one is aware of one's impulsivity.
Temptation and obstacles will come up. But you can devise a pre-commitment strategy for yourself and your clients to deal with obstacles and increase your chances of achieving your goals by answering the following questions, which come directly from a study by Gabriele Oettingen on physical activity.
1. What is your most critical obstacle (e.g., getting up too late) together with events and experiences you associate with this obstacle
2. When and where does the obstacle occur, and what can I do to overcome or circumvent the obstacle?
3. When and where is there an opportunity to prevent the obstacle from occurring, and
4. What can I do to prevent it from occurring
5. When and where is a good opportunity for me to act on my goal, and what would this action be?
This is how you avoid using willpower: You pre-commit by planning for the obstacles, and temptations, that will inevitably come up.
Gabriele Oettingen has created the WOOP method to achieving goals. You can try your hand at the WOOP method here.
Raio, C. M., & Glimcher, P. W. (2021). Quantifying the subjective cost of self-control in humans. PNAS, 2020.10.15.341354. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2018726118
Soutschek, A., & Tobler, P. N. (2020). Know your weaknesses: Sophisticated impulsiveness motivates voluntary self-restrictions. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. Sep;46(9):1611-1623. https://doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000833.