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How We Overestimate Our Own Self-Control

States of mind

PR Newswire posted an article yesterday called “Research Shows Temptation More Powerful Than Individuals Realize; Personal Restraints Often Overpowered by Impulse” about recent psychological research by Loran Nordgren.┬áThat research makes a very useful point: on average, we tend to overestimate how much self-control we have, so we tend to put ourselves in tempting situations more often than is ideal for us. This is an example of an effect Daniel Gilbert describes in his book Stumbling on Happiness, that when we are in one mood, it’s very difficult for us to imagine how we would make decisions in a different mood–and that we generally don’t recognize this is so. When we’re sad, it feels as though everything will suck forever, for instance. In the same way, Nordgren’s experiments support the idea that when we’re calm, we don’t do a good job of predicting how we’ll act if things get crazy (for instance, if someone introduces a big slice of chocolate cake into the picture).

Unfortunately, this piece makes the same mistake that is often made when people talk about running out of willpower: they assume that we should avoid all tempting situations no matter what. In reality, if we always avoid temptation, we miss our opportunities to exercise and strengthen our willpower. We just don’t want to go in the other direction either, and overwhelm ourselves past the point where we still have willpower left.

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