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According to the Collins English Dictionary, temptation refers to the feeling when "you want to do something or have something, even though you know you really should avoid it".
So, if temptation is the desire to do something that rationally you know may not be in your best interests to do, why is it so hard to resist?
Well, studies suggest a lot of it comes down to willpower. Willpower has been defined as "the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals" (American Psychological Association, 2012) and it can help us to delay gratification and practice self-control.
According to some past research, willpower is a limited resource, and we must therefore use it wisely if we are to achieve our longer-term goals. However, other studies suggest it's all about mindset. That is if you have the belief that you possess the necessary resources to succeed in your goals, the more likely you will be to succeed.
Diet started Monday... but was over by Sunday
Regardless of where you stand on willpower, there is no denying that it can be hard to maintain or exercise successfully when faced with temptation.
The reason that so many diets fail or shiny new exercise regimes start to wane is that we're hardwired to seek instant gratification.
Google-searching our symptoms and scrolling through social media feeds further fuels our hunger for not only wanting new information, products, or validation but wanting it NOW.
As so much is available to us in an instant at the click of a button or literal blink of an eye, we are not well-versed in exercising our willpower and practising patience.
The same goes for trying to build new habits. We might have ambitious goals to start a new diet or consume less fast fashion but being surrounded by cheap fast-food deals and sale rails doesn't exactly make it easy to stay on track.
So, what can be done?
There are a number of ways that you can strengthen willpower, and, in turn, increase your chances of achieving your goals.
First up is improving self-control. By setting clearly-defined, specific and realistic goals, we can stay both focused and motivated on the smaller steps and tasks required to reach our goals.
Self-control refers to a cognitive process that helps us to self-regulate our behaviours in pursuit of our long-term goals. It is described as an 'executive function' which we can use to inhibit ourselves from giving in to temptations and acting on impulse.
A study from 2019 found that trait self-control (an individual's inherent capacity to override or change one's own behaviour regarding undesired behavioural tendencies) is consistently and positively associated with the uptake of health-promoting behaviours such as physical activity and healthy eating, and consistently negatively associated with health-compromising behaviours (snacking on unhealthy foods, alcohol consumption).
So, how can this be increased or are we just stuck with the hand we've been dealt?
Delaying gratification: in other words, 'learn to be patient', which is easier said than done. What would you do if you were given a marshmallow to eat but told that if you wait you'll actually end up with two marshmallows? The famous 'marshmallow test' that you might have seen doing the rounds on TikTok recently (albeit with dogs and dog treats instead of marshmallows) is a prime example of testing people's willpower and practising delayed gratification. Supporting people to resist temptation in the short-term can help them to recognise and realise the benefits of achieving their longer-term goals.
The C word: commitment devices. Something that can help us to stay on track with goals until they have ultimately been achieved are commitment devices, sometimes referred to as 'commitment contracts'. These involve us imposing some form of restriction(s) on our behaviour until we have been successful in achieving our goals (e.g., doing a healthy online food shop might reduce the likelihood that a person goes and buys unhealthy foods in the meantime). It has been suggested that people are more likely to achieve their goals by making use of commitment contracts, but uptake is low and additional behavioural principles (e.g., social norms) may be necessary to motivate people towards their use in future.
Temptation bundling: Another way to strengthen willpower is to engage in 'temptation bundling', whereby a desirable behaviour is 'bundled' together with or performed alongside a more tempting and appealing behaviour. This, in turn, makes the desirable behaviour more appealing, as the individual begins to associate it with the more enjoyable, indulgent activity. For more on temptation bundling in action, check out this article by Behavioural Scientist Katy Milkman and colleagues, here.
Want to learn more about the psychology of temptation and the science of self-control?
Tune into our next Work-break Webinar on Thursday 30th March with Dr Rachel Langbein about all things weight-management and setting yourself up for future success with your nutrition and exercise goals.