Magazine article Science News

Willpower Wanes after Resisting: Ability to Exert Self-Control Boosted by Avoiding Temptation

Magazine article Science News

Willpower Wanes after Resisting: Ability to Exert Self-Control Boosted by Avoiding Temptation

Article excerpt

Willpower comes with a wicked kickback. Exerting self-control saps a person's mental energy and makes the next desire that inevitably comes along feel more compelling and harder to resist, a study of people's daily struggles with temptation found.

But the people best able to resist eating sweets, going out with friends before finishing work or other temptations find ways to steer clear of such enticements altogether, so that they rarely have to resort to self-control, psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago reported January 28.

"Willpower fluctuates throughout the day, rather than being a constant personality trait," said psychologist and study coauthor Roy Baumeister of Florida State University in Tallahassee, who also summarized at the meeting his recent lab experiments on willpower's mental effects. "Prior resistance makes new desires seem stronger than usual."

Hofmann and his colleagues contacted 205 adults in a German city at various times of day for a week. Using handheld devices provided by the researchers, volunteers furnished 10,558 reports about desires they encountered or thought about.

Most self-reported desires didn't create problems for participants. When desires conflicted with other goals and called for resistance, volunteers' willpower failed 17 percent of the time, on average.

Desires for food, sleep and sex were rated as most intense. On a daily basis, though, participants most often gave in to urges related to media, such as checking their e-mail, and to working on job-related tasks. …

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