New Research Suggests An Important First Step When Trying To Adopt Self-Control Strategies

Researcher Anamarie Gennara highlights how belief influences our ability to regulate our impulses.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 3, 2023

A recent study published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology highlights the importance of shifting lay beliefs about self-control strategies to promote their use and improve self-control effectively.

I recently spoke to Anamarie Gennara, Department of Psychology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and the lead author of the paper to understand what are some effective self-control strategies that can aid in transitioning from traditional beliefs to a more open-minded approach towards strategy use. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What motivated you to investigate lay theories about self-control strategy use?

My colleague, Dr. Johanna Peetz came up with this project idea following a conversation with a friend who dismissed the use of strategies for self-control – they said one should be able to do it without having to resort to such "tricks". This led to questions about how people think about self-control, and in particular, what they believe about using strategies for self-control.

With our research, we were interested to know how people"s beliefs about strategy use might influence how they view others who use strategies and how this perception shapes their own strategy use.

Could you explain the methodology of your study? What were the key findings of your research?

We conducted five experiments. We created scenarios of fictional individuals described as using strategies or described as using willpower to overcome temptation. Participants rated each person in terms of how much self-control they believed that person had. We found that "strategy users" were consistently rated as having less self-control than "willpower users".

In our final experiment, we had participants read a short article on the importance of either strategies or the importance of willpower for self-control before rating others in self-control. People who read about the importance of strategies rated fictional persons using strategies as higher in self-control, so it seems that the beliefs about how central strategies are to self-control can be changed.

We also found that those who read the article about strategies were more willing to use strategies in general than those who read the other article.

What implications can be drawn from these findings? How can understanding these lay beliefs about self-control strategy use be beneficial in real-world contexts?

Our research shows that people's beliefs about the importance of strategies for self-control significantly shape their perceptions of others who employ these strategies, as well as their own willingness to use them.

One key implication is that these beliefs can be shifted with exposure to the benefit of strategies. By educating individuals on the value of strategy use in maintaining self-control, it could lead to greater intentions to try out these strategies themselves, and ultimately, to easier, more effective self-control.

Based on your research findings, what advice would you give to individuals who want to improve their self-control and resist temptations more effectively?

I"d encourage people to be open and experiment with different strategies that help make their goal pursuit easier. There isn"t a "one-size-fits-all" solution to self-regulation—if we view it through such a narrow lens, we risk missing out on discovering other tools that make it easier for us to overcome temptation and stay on track with our goals.

How can individuals overcome the lay belief that willpower is more central to self-control than strategies? What strategies or interventions can be employed to shift this belief and promote the use of effective self-control strategies?

Teaching people about the importance of strategies for self-control may be one way to overcome the idea that willpower is central to self-control. However, just telling people about the benefits of strategies may not be enough to promote lasting change.

Rather, it may be useful to link the use of strategies with positive qualities, like appearing as more disciplined. By appealing to our general desire to view ourselves positively, we may feel more motivated to try strategies out for ourselves.