Tips on self-control for the holidays

Marketplace Staff Dec 7, 2009

Tips on self-control for the holidays

Marketplace Staff Dec 7, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: If ever there was a month that was tough on impulse control, this is it. You’ve got your holiday parties with all those tasty drinks and rich desserts. There are the expensive gifts you’d like to buy for family and friends. And holiday sales pretty much all over, where you can buy yourself something nice. In short, everything about December says, act without thinking, spend without worrying, consume with wild abandon. So just to spoil the party we’ve got Dan Ariely, our favorite behavioral economist here with us to talk impulse control. Dan, good to have you back.

Dan Ariely: Same here.

Ryssdal: I will say right off the bat I, as it happens, have great impulse control. Lots of will power.

ARIELY: Really? Give me an example.

Ryssdal: OK, here we go. Two-and-a-half years ago I weighed 196 pounds.

ARIELY: Two-and-a-half-years ago!

Ryssdal: No, no. It’s an involving story. I weighed 196, I now weigh 174, and I’m very proud of that. I maintain it. And I control my impulse to eat chocolate cake and all that good stuff.

ARIELY: That’s very good. How about while you drive? Are you tempted to check your phone or your text messages?

Ryssdal: No. Nope.

ARIELY: So you’re saying food doesn’t do it for you. You’re doing well on driving.

Ryssdal: C’mon, take your best shot. What else do you have?

ARIELY: No, it’s very good. I’m impressed.

Ryssdal: Well, thank you. But how does this spill over then into broader behavior?

ARIELY: So it turns out, first of all, that controlling things is very hard. We have problems with procrastination, where today it’s much better to do things that are fun than to do work. When we do the trade off between the here and now and later, often we succumb to the here and now. And you seem like you’re an exceptional human being in many aspects including this one, but for most people this is tough.

But here’s an interesting thing, Roy Baumeister and some of his colleagues have shown that what happened is that as we try to resist, it becomes harder and harder to resist temptation. So imagine, for example, that you’re walking and see some kind of wonderful chocolate cake, and you say, oh, I’m not going to get it. And then you go ahead and you see some other fried stuff, and you say I’m not going to get this. And you resist temptation and you resist temptation, you resist temptation. As it turns, the more you resist temptation the harder it is for you to resist temptation, until at some point you fail and get the fatty, unhealthy stuff.

And in fact all the decisions don’t have to be the same way. So, for example, if you are seeing a funny movie, and you can think whatever makes you laugh, and you get instructions: don’t laugh. And you try very, very hard to hold yourself from not laughing, you’re using all your self-control ability to basically make sure that you’re not going to laugh. And then I say, what do you want, chocolate cake or an apple? Now, you’re much more likely to go for the chocolate cake.

Ryssdal: Take it out of the movie theater for a minute, and away from chocolate cake, and how does it apply more broadly?

ARIELY: So you know we’ve done lots of experiments on cheating, when we tempt people to steal money from us, and we see how much money they steal. And we were wondering whether if we deplete people, if we get them to exercise this self-control, and kind of weaken their ability to resist temptation, are they going to cheat more? And that’s actually what we found. So we gave people all kinds of tasks that depleted their self-control, and then we gave them a task in which they could cheat, and what happened was that these people cheated much more.

Ryssdal: What happens, though, if you do get depleted. How do replenish that self-control? Can you build it back up again?

ARIELY: Do you want the really sad story?

Ryssdal: I guess so.

ARIELY: So there are some findings by Roy Baumeister and his colleague that says if you exercise self-control you can increase it a little bit over time. But the really sad thing is to really build up your self-control, outside of, you know, sleeping for the night and so on, is to consume sugar. So, for example, if you drink sweet tea with actual sugar rather than one of those artificial replacements, you all of the sudden rebuild your self-control.

Ryssdal: Go figure. Dan Ariely from Duke University. He teaches behavioral economics there. His book is called “Predictably Irrational.” Dan, thanks a lot.

ARIELY: My pleasure.

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