This post is about willpower and self-control. As regular readers know by now, I have very little willpower and self-control around food. I’ve always been skinny and now my fried chicken habit is starting to catch up with me. But other Americans seem to have a little more self-control – at least in one area. It seems that Hostess, the company that makes Twinkies, Ding Dongs and other sugar-laden, empty-calorie snack bombs, has filed for bankruptcy.
But this example flies in the face of some recent research on willpower and self-control. Social psychologists have known for years that self-control is a finite resource, that it can be quickly depleted, and that more often than not, we humans yield to temptation. In fact, one study showed just how weak willpower really is. The study revealed that participants who were asked to remember a seven-digit number were twice as likely to choose chocolate cake over fruit salad as participants who were only asked to remember two digits. Apparently it only takes five bits of information for self-control to completely disappear and yield to desire.
The new research tracked how often temptation caused self-conflict or resistance, and how that resistance impacted behavior. Study participants reported that about half their desires caused internal conflict, prompting active resistance and employing self-restraint. When participants resisted their desires, it was often effective – they yielded to temptation less than 20% of the time. However, when there was no resistance, participants reached for the Twinkies 70% of the time.
The study showed that people with higher degrees of self-control experienced desires that weren’t as intense as others and because of that, required less inner strength to resist. These folks use an old (but highly successful) tactic to overcome temptation – they avoid it entirely. Instead of buying the Twinkies and having to look at them in the pantry and try to resist them, these people avoided them altogether. They conserve their limited supply of willpower by not putting themselves in situations where they experience that inner conflict.
Interestingly, social context played a role. If participants were around others who were giving in, they were also more likely to break bad and chow down on a Ding Dong. If the group was resisting, then participants could walk away from the sugar bomb more easily.
Here’s the takeaway: willpower isn’t about clinching your jaw and grinding through, it’s about choosing where you direct your attention, and recognizing that if we’re staring down a Twinkie, chances are we’re going to eat it.
As advertisers and marketers, we’ve always counted on people not resisting the temptations offered by our shinier, tastier, whiter, faster, cooler products. We’ve counted on people not having self-control. And it’s worked so far. But as people’s values and attention shift to pragmatism and needs over wants, we may see that people aren’t walking down your aisle any more. Instead of trying to resist, they may be avoiding instead. So the challenge becomes how do we avoid becoming the next Twinkie? How do we move away from producing things people don’t really need that fulfill those lower temptation drives, and deliver true value instead. That’s real sustainability.