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Study uncovers the key to keeping resolutions

Did you confidently pledge to quit smoking when the New Year's ball dropped? Did you vow to keep your fingers out of the cookie jar? Or promise to refrain from binge drinking?

The key to sticking with that resolution is simple: Don't overestimate your own self-control.

A recent study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that those with an inflated sense of impulse control are more likely to expose themselves to their temptations and ultimately fall into the trap of giving in to those temptations. In other words, it's not a good idea to keep that pack of cigarettes in the house if your plan is to quit, or to leave those chocolates on the top shelf, supposedly out of reach, if your resolution is to lose weight.

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"Basically we walk around believing that we have more control than we in fact have, and the consequence of that is we don't take sufficient precautions," said Loran Nordgren, co-author of the study and a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Illinois.

"The people who are most self-confident also, as a result, expose themselves to more temptation than others, which also makes them the most likely to fail."

The authors conducted four studies examining how beliefs on impulse control affected a person's ability to overcome temptation.

In one study, smokers were divided into two groups and told they either had superior self-control over their cravings or little impulse control. The overly confident group were more willing to keep a cigarette in their hands while they watched the 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes . As a result, they exposed themselves to more temptation than they could handle and were more likely to smoke the cigarette.

The authors also found that smokers who were trying to quit and who felt they had more self-control were less likely to have abstained four months later, because they were not diligent enough in avoiding temptation.

"What we found is that people have chronically underestimated the power of impulse," Prof. Nordgren said. "People think they have a greater capacity for self-control than they in fact have and that misperception, what I have been calling the restraint bias, leads them into temptation."

Prof. Nordgren said people need to appreciate the destructiveness of addictions and take a humble view. That requires avoiding temptations instead of having unrealistic perceptions of control.

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He said that some addiction programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous, have realized the danger of inflated impulse control beliefs. One of the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous is that an alcoholic should admit powerlessness over alcohol.

While the purpose of Prof. Nordgren's study is to improve on addiction programs, it is also easily applied to New Year's resolutions.

"My recommendation to people making health resolutions is to be very specific on what those goals are, and those goals should absolutely be focused on ways to avoid the temptation," he said.

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More


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