Some bad news for all of you who use your smartphone as a sixth sense: new research suggests that urges to use media are the most irresistible, though desires for sleep and sex were reported as stronger. The findings are based on a recent study by Wilhelm Hoffman of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
In the new study of desire regulation, 205 adults wore devices that recorded a total of 7,827 reports about their daily desires. Desires for sleep and sex were the strongest, while desires for media and work proved the hardest to resist. Even though tobacco and alcohol are thought of as addictive, desires associated with them were the weakest, according to the study. Surprisingly to the researchers, sleep and leisure were the most problematic desires, suggesting “pervasive tension between natural inclinations to rest and relax and the multitude of work and other obligations,” said Hofmann, lead author of the study, “Desires and Cravings: Food, Money, Status, Sex,” forthcoming in Psychological Science.
I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who feels inseparable from the media outlets around me. Just one more move on Words With Friends is harmless, right? The study also showed that willpower is diminished the more it is exercised.
The study supported past research that the more frequently and recently people have resisted a desire, the less successful they will be at resisting any subsequent desire. Therefore as a day wears on, willpower becomes lower, and self-control efforts are more likely to fail, said Hofmann, who co-authored the paper with Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota.
Scientists who study the complex interplay between desires and self-control say that passing up on temptation is made ever more difficult by the idea that there is no single or clear feeling that alerts us to when our willpower is low. “But we find that when willpower is low, everything is felt more intensely,” said Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.“ Low willpower seems to turn up the volume on life.”
In a series of experiments, Baumeister and his colleagues found that people with low willpower reported more distress in response to an upsetting film and rated cold water as more painful during a cold-water immersion test. They also had stronger desires to open a gift and to keep eating cookies.
The solution to willpower? Procrastination (the good kind), at least when it comes to food cravings.
In one experiment, Nicole Mead’s team gave 105 high school students in the Netherlands a bag of potato chips. Some participants received instructions to either postpone, restrain or consume the potato chips, while others could choose among the three eating strategies. Over the course of one week, students who initially postponed eating the chips subsequently ate the least amount of chips, regardless of whether they chose or were given the strategy. They ate even more than those who were instructed to not eat them at all.
“Postponing consumption is an effective strategy that consumers can use for controlling unwanted, food-related desires,” Mead said. “In modern society, people are absolutely inundated with opportunities to consume, and this strategy may be particularly helpful because it primarily works through desire reduction rather than willpower enhancement.” Future research will examine whether the strategy works for other transient impulses, such as spending and sexual desires.
The next time you’re glued to Tumblr at 2am, take a breather before clicking to the next page or crossing the room to grab a late-night snack. Distancing the immediate satisfaction of your desires might just reduce them, if ever so slightly. Unfortunately, your weak willpower is there to stay.