What’s a simple, proven way to resist temptation?
A confession: I really like cakes, chocolate, ice cream and toffee popcorn and all manner of treats that are full of sugar and saturated fat!
Like most people, I sometimes struggle to resist temptation. But recent research has found a simple way to boost willpower when we’re trying to do the right thing.
Vanessa Patrick at the C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston taught experimental participants one of two strategies for resisting temptation:
- She taught some of the participants to tell themselves “I don’t eat X” – of course she told them to replace ‘X’ with whatever they were trying to resist.
- She taught the other half of the participants to say to themselves “I can’t eat X.”
She then gave them an unrelated test to do to keep them busy. At the end of the unrelated test, she offered them a choice of a treat as a sign of appreciation. The participants could either choose a healthy granola bar or a fatty, sugary, delicious chocolate bar.
Before you read any further, pause for a few seconds and have a think: which do you think would be the more successful way to resist temptation?
Ok, the answer.
The results of the study showed that 61 per cent of those who had been taught “I can’t eat X” succumbed to temptation and took the chocolate. However, only 36 per cent of those who had been taught “I don’t eat X” took the chocolate.
Vanessa Patrick also repeated the experiment in different settings to prove that this was a robust finding and not a chance occurrence. But the point is this:
Saying “I don’t” seems to be a much more successful way of resisting temptation than saying “I can’t”.
Why does this work? Saying “I can’t” may imply that we shouldn’t do something that we actually do want to do. On the other hand, saying “I don’t ” empowers us and makes it feel like a positive choice that we have decided to make.