by Dr. Richard Lopez
The promise (and demise) of willpower
On the first day of a seminar I teach at Bard College on the science of goal pursuit, I often will query my students about self-control dilemmas they have faced recently, whether it’s something relatively innocuous such as foregoing a bit of sleep to watch TikTok videos late into the night, or more damaging behaviors, such as binge-drinking or patterns of overwork and burnout that take a toll on their mental health. A theme that emerges from this discussion is that when students report being successful in regulating their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the service of their goals, they experience relatively little effort when doing so. Conversely, when they share stories about times in which they unsuccessfully attempted to exert self-control, they frequently say the experience was more effortful, challenging, and discouraging.
But isn’t this all backwards, running counter to what we intuitively believe about human willpower and resistance – namely, that self-control requires effort? Yes, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it flies in the face of a large and influential body of research. Roy Baumeister, Dianne Tice, and other social psychologists made a big splash in the late-1990s when they presented evidence of what they called ego-depletion, a phenomenon whereby people’s self-control can be taxed and even entirely used up, or “depleted,” with repeated use.
In one of their landmark studies, Baumeister and his colleagues instructed research participants to eat radishes (under the guise of a taste perception study) while the laboratory was filled with the enticing aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. In the second part of the study, these participants gave up more quickly when completing a challenging puzzle than did participants who were allowed to eat the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. The researchers reasoned that, for the poor radish-eating souls, the resistance and discomfort they experienced sapped “some kind of strength or energy,” which subsequently set them on a course for failure.
Fast forward to the mid 2010s. Psychology was then beginning to grapple in earnest with a replication crisis: A troubling number of established findings, including many seminal ones, were not reproduced when the experiments were run again. Baumeister and colleagues’ ego depletion account of self-control has essentially been disproved. So much for cookies, radishes, and difficult puzzles.
New insights about behavior change: proactive strategies and autonomous motivation
In the twilight of ego depletion research, psychological scientists studying behavior change have begun asking fundamental questions to drive the field forward. One such question is: can we make self-control, which was traditionally thought to require great exertion, operate more like a habit, so it becomes easy, routine, and almost second-nature as people pursue their goals?
One intriguing finding, for instance, that has emerged recently suggests that paragons of self-control are not those who have massive stores of willpower, or who are not as susceptible to depletion (if it even exists). Rather, they set up and go about their lives in such a way that they experience temptation and threats to self-control less intensely and less frequently. In this way, the road to success does not involve exerting or preserving willpower, but rarely having to call upon it in the first place. For example, in a landmark study of how self-control operates in daily life, Dr. Wilhelm Hofmann and colleagues found that those individuals with better self-control tended to experience weaker temptations than those with poorer self-control. One interpretation of this finding is that good self-regulators are those who avoid situations and cues they already know to be problematic, so they proactively take steps that promote their goal pursuit. In this case, greater self-insight triggered use of proactive strategies, such as situation avoidance.
Another question researchers have actively been pursuing is: which internal psychological processes are especially important for self-regulation and long term behavior change?
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is one of the most popular and comprehensive psychological theories of human personality and behavior. SDT posits that people have fundamental psychological needs, the satisfaction of which are critical for well being and human flourishing. Foremost among these is the need for autonomy. Not to be confused with independence or self-reliance, autonomy refers to humans freely exercising their agency to pursue goals that are self-endorsed and intrinsically valued and nurtured by oneself (Ryan & Deci, 2017). There is a growing body of work showing that people who are autonomously motivated tend to experience better health and wellbeing. This may arise in part from the fact that autonomously motivated folks truly understand and own their goals, and are therefore more successful with self-regulatory behaviors that positively impact their health.
Can behavior change be a treatment for BFRBs?
Putting all of this together, I would like to offer some suggestions on how one can better manage body focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs)—as informed by the recent insights from behavior change research discussed above.
Nurture awareness about the situations, circumstances, and cues you encounter in your day-to-day (e.g., work-related stress, lack of sleep, etc.) that reliably trigger BFRBs. Identifying preceding events and cues may seem challenging at first, but you should be able to discern patterns, especially with help from Keen2’s enhanced awareness training, part of the in-app Habit Reversal Training course modules, and data tracking dashboard. At that point, take proactive steps that modify or change these preceding factors and their influence, inasmuch as that’s possible. This proactive approach can save you from having to use brute willpower!
Articulate and own your goals, especially those that you see conflicting with BFRBs and the effects these behaviors have on your mental and physical health. Keen2’s new app focuses on these same motivational processes with its “What is (Your) Motivation?” course. Further, a helpful starting point is to complete a personalized goal inventory to determine which goals, personal and professional, you are currently pursuing in your life. Going down the list, you may find some goals that remain personally meaningful and whose worth are obvious to you, while you may want to revisit or abandon other goals that you do not thoroughly endorse and value. Indeed, it may be fruitful to generally ask questions such as: why am I even pursuing X to begin with? And: why have I not been pursuing Y? The aim of this exercise is not to come up with an idealized list of goals and life pursuits, but rather to increase your sense of autonomy in how you think about and value your own goals, and why you’re pursuing them—whatever they might be. Once you have clearly articulated your goals in this way, you may start seeing positive changes.
Somewhere down the road, you’ve probably been told “behavior change is hard.” And in trying to stop hair pulling, skin picking, or nail biting, you’ve probably been met with so much resistance to this near impossible feat that you now believe it to be true. But the science shows that self-control is not about willpower, but rather lifestyle change.
By flipping the goal from merely “stopping” to training self-control so it is consistent with goals you have, you can engage the tools above to help you change your Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior by doing the following:
- Setting your lifestyle to consciously reduce exposure to situations that trigger the unwanted behavior
- Knowing your “why” behind the change you seek, to maintain motivation
The beauty and innovation of the HabitAware Keen2 bracelet and app system is that it supports your ability to implement these tools. Keen2 is in itself a tool to support all the other tools, and the more tools you have, the more successful you’ll be at creating a lifestyle that benefits the self-control “habit.”
About Dr. Richard Lopez
Dr. Richard Lopez earned his PhD in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College and subsequently served as a postdoctoral fellow in the Translational Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at Rice University. Currently, he serves as an assistant professor of psychology at Bard College, where he directs the Regulation of Everyday Affect, Craving, and Health Lab. He and his lab are interested in better understanding how people pursue their goals and lead healthy, thriving lives.