Self-control — or lack of it — can have a serious impact on our lives. Poor self-control can lead to feelings of loneliness, while those with higher levels of self-discipline experience states like hunger and tiredness less intensely. Yet despite these obvious benefits, the vast majority of us sometimes experience failures in self-control no matter how hard we try.
A new study, published in PNAS, looks to quantify the cost of self-control. Candace M. Raio and Paul W. Glimcher from the New York University School of Medicine find that we’re willing to pay a monetary price to avoid having to exert self-control — and we’ll pay more if the temptation is particularly strong.
In the first study, conducted in a lab, dieting participants started by indicating how healthy, tasty and tempting they found particular foods like crisps or chocolate brownies. They then reported how much of a $10 endowment they would be willing to pay to avoid having the highly tempting food placed immediately in front of them for half an hour. The tempting food was then placed in front of them, and the participant was given further opportunities to bid to have it replaced with a less tempting food.
Importantly, there was a small chance that each bid would go to auction, where it was compared against a random figure between $0 and $10: if the participants bid a higher amount, they would have a low-tempting food placed in front of them for the remainder of the 30 minutes, but if they bid a lower amount, the highly tempting food would remain for the rest of the time.
The results showed that participants were prepared to pay on average 15% of the $10 to remove the temptation — and continued to bid a similar amount throughout the task, suggesting a sustained desire to have temptation removed. In total, 22% of participants consumed the highly tempting food.
The second study replicated the first — only this time, participants were told they would also lose a $15 bonus if they ate the tempting food. Again, the dieting participants showed a sustained willingness to pay to avoid temptation, bidding on average $2.85 out of their $10 endowment to have the food removed. Thus, they spent more money when the costs of not meeting their self-control goals were higher. Interestingly, with this penalty in place none of the participants presented with the highly tempting food consumed it.
In a third study, some participants were exposed to stress before the self-control task through the immersion of their hand into ice-cold water. These stressed participants were willing to pay more to avoid the tempting food compared to non-stressed participants, more than doubling the amount of money they put up. And in a final study, the team found that participants were willing to pay more to avoid highly tempting food versus food that was only a little tempting.
So, overall, dieting participants were willing to pay actual money in order to avoid exercising self-control in the face of temptation. This reinforces previous research that suggests that when faced with temptation we will attempt to avoid using cognitive resources like self-control as much as we possibly can, relying on different tactics instead. The results also suggest that we carefully weigh up the costs of exercising self-control and the costs of losing self-control, making active and rational decisions about when to give into temptation and what to sacrifice when doing so.
The study also offers interesting insights into “precommitment” — rather than being forced to face temptation and succeed, participants preferred to not be exposed to the risk of failure at all. This could be a useful strategy when trying to achieve goals (and is probably already well known to many dieters who remove snacks from their house rather than trying not to eat them).
Future research could look at what happens when people have to face temptation over an unknown time period: all participants in this particular study knew the maximum amount of time they would have to resist temptation, but something different may have happened if they had not had this information. Looking at non-financial costs people are willing to pay could also be enlightening, going some way to explain why we manage to resist temptation in some cases but not in others.