January 31, 2012

Discipline takes an early start, study says

Giving into desire may not be so terrible.

According to a study called “Desires and Cravings: Food, Money, Status, Sex,” co-authored by Booth School of Business assistant professor Wilhelm Hofmann, self control becomes weaker the more it is used throughout the day. The study is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science.

In the study, subjects used their smartphones to measure their desires. They provided information about the type, severity, and how conflicted they were about following through and succumbing to their wants.

Among the most common and strongest desires were eating, sleeping, and social and sexual human contact. Desires for alcohol and tobacco were surprisingly small in comparison.

“What we found is that people who are strongly depleted are more than twice as likely to give in to temptations that they want to resist than those who are not depleted,” Hofmann said in an interview.

Hofmann, the lead author of the study, likened self control to a muscle in the body that becomes fatigued the more it is used over the course of the day. He explained that people with high self control had low levels of desire, saying that people who could restrain their impulses shaped their environments to avoid temptation.

Hofmann also suggested that self control is wasted when temptation ultimately prevails.

“You’re on a diet and you don’t want to eat that cake in front of you, but in the end you find yourself just eating it anyway,” he said. “You enjoy the here-and-now at the expense of long losses.”

In the study, when subjects did not feel conflicted about their desires, they successfully acted on them 70 percent of the time. However, when the subjects did feel conflicted about their wants and tried to impose self control, they only acted successfully 17 percent of the time.

“That’s the power of self control,” Hofmann said.