Using Willpower to Achieve Goals Seen as More Trustworthy than External Strategies

A new study published by the American Psychological Association has found that people who use willpower to resist temptations and reach their goals are seen as more trustworthy than those who use external strategies like swear jars or apps that block distracting websites. The research, led by Dr. Ariella Kristal from Columbia University, involved a series of online experiments with over 2,800 participants from the United States.

The Benefits of Commitment Strategies

Commitment strategies, which are external aids used to help people achieve their goals, have been shown to be effective for various objectives like quitting smoking, losing weight, doing well in school, and saving money. Despite these benefits, not much research has been done on how using these strategies affects the way others see the people who use them.

Comparing Willpower and Commitment Strategies

In most of the experiments, participants were given hypothetical situations involving people who tried to achieve a goal using either willpower or a commitment strategy. For example, in one scenario, participants were asked to rate the integrity of hypothetical individuals who used willpower to avoid unhealthy behaviors like eating junk food or drinking alcohol, versus those who paid $5 every time they engaged in the unwanted behavior.

“The knowledge that people can use external commitment strategies to overcome self-control problems has existed in some form for thousands of years. Since at least the time of Homer and Odysseus, the focus has primarily been on the efficacy of these strategies for the person choosing to engage in them,” said lead author Ariella Kristal, PhD, of Columbia University. “This prior work has demonstrated, for example, that Odysseus made the right decision to tie himself to the mast rather than attempting to use willpower to resist the sirens in the moment.”

The Perception of Trustworthiness

Overall, the study found that people who were described as using commitment strategies to achieve their goals were seen as less trustworthy than those who used willpower alone. This was true even when participants recognized that the strategies were more effective than relying on willpower.

“People appear particularly hesitant to adopt commitment strategies when their use will be made public and, while not as high, people’s resistance continues to remain elevated even when the use of strategies will be kept private,” said Kristal. “This occurs despite the fact that people do recognize and acknowledge the benefits of these commitment strategies.”

Implications for Self-Control Programs

The researchers believe that choosing to use a commitment strategy signals to others that a person has a deficiency in their character. People may think that those who need external help (instead of just using willpower) are more likely to have failed in the past and are less capable of overcoming self-control problems on their own.

“Past failures of self-control can be seen by others as moral failures. Because morality is an important component of integrity in particular, and trustworthiness more broadly, people who rely on commitment strategies may be viewed as less trustworthy than those who simply use willpower,” said Kristal.

These findings have important implications for developing programs and initiatives that rely on external strategies to help people achieve their goals. By understanding the role of interpersonal judgments in self-control strategy choice, we can start to understand why people may not adopt these helpful strategies and how to better promote their effective use.

Going beyond the self in self-control: Interpersonal consequences of commitment strategies,” by Ariella Kristal, PhD, Columbia University Business School, and Julian Zlatev, PhD, Harvard Business School. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online April 11, 2024.

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