To Keep Willpower from Flagging, Remember the F-Word: ‘Fun’

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Exercising self-control isn’t fun.

If you’re dieting, for instance, you may easily resist the blueberry muffin at that impossibly aromatic bakeshop you pass by in the morning. You may then have lunch with your friends but just order a small salad (sans creamy dressing, of course). But at some point later in the day, your defenses get weaker. You find yourself declaring after dinner that, yes, you will take a look at the dessert menu. I will have a slice of that creamy cheesecake, you say. After all, what’s a little indulgence after a strenuous day of healthful living? (More on Time.com: The ‘Other’ Salt: 5 Foods Rich in Potassium)

Psychologists have long observed this pattern with self-regulation. They liken a person’s self-control to a muscle’s diminishing power; that is, the more people use their limited supply of self-control to stop one behavior, the more likely they will succumb to the next temptation. New research, however, suggests that not all acts of self-control need to be tiring. Some can be vitalizing — it may all depend on your perception of the task at hand.

“We can change people’s cognitions,” says Juliano Laran, the lead author of the study slated to be published in the April 2011 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research. “If people’s thoughts about what they’re doing can be changed, then people are not going to be tired. They’re not going to lack energy.”

So how can people’s view of chores that require willpower be altered? It’s simpler than you might think. It all boils down to one word — fun. (More on Time.com: Fitness Tech: 10 Cool Ways to Get in Shape)

In a two-part experiment, Laran and fellow marketing researcher Chris Janiszewski first asked 251 participants to make a series of hard consumer choices. One of them involved choosing a place to rent from a selection of decidedly similar apartments. All of the participants were given the same set of choices, but the task was prefaced to some by an additional sentence: “The first study is a fun study involving hypothetical choices in several product categories.”

The second part of the experiment, which was designed to test the effect of the inclusion of that f-word, involved evaluating a bunch of boring ads. The participants were told they could quit at any point, and the researchers used the length of time respondents stuck with the tedious task to measure their ability to exercise self-control. That is, respondents who sat through more ads were thought to be less impulsive and to have more willpower.

“When people perceived the initial task to be fun, they just kept going,” Laran says. “For someone who makes hard choices for the day and sees these as fun, at the end of the day, instead of being depleted and not going to the gym, they would actually go and workout even more than they would otherwise.” In other words, they won’t be craving that creamy cheesecake. (More on Time.com: Photos: How to Dress Yourself Thin)

Laran says his study has broad implications and “can be applied to any task that requires persistence.” Still, he hopes in particular that weight-loss institutions would take notice. He says putting “subtle cues in the environment that can suggest fun” can be a powerful motivator. He adds that more flexible programs that consider input from the dieters themselves may produce better results, since dieters are more likely to exhibit self-control when they feel that they’re making the decisions for themselves, not being pressured by others.

“Energy depletion effects are most apparent when people feel low autonomy,” says Richard M. Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester. “To the extent that activities are viewed as either fun or valuable, and therefore freely and willingly done, people find them less draining. And they can even experience increased energy [after] completion of such tasks.”

But can dieters themselves develop their ability to self-regulate? It’s possible, Laran says, though they didn’t test for this specifically in their study. Still, another recent study published in the journal Acta Psychologica suggests that one’s inner voice can be used to curb impulsive behavior.

When confronted with temptation, “you need to remind yourself of your goal,” says Alexa Tullett, the lead author of the Acta Psychologica study. “In real-world situations like dieting or exercising, you need to constantly be reminding yourself of your goal of eating healthy foods or staying on the treadmill for an extra five minutes.”

It probably wouldn’t hurt also if that treadmill opened with a fun welcoming message.

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