There it is, posing. A small, perfectly formed chocolate. The diminutive trouble-maker causes you angst. You adore chocolate, but you’re battling to lose weight. Immediate longing clashes against a longer-term goal. Just how often are we torn in this way? And how often are we able to resist?
To find out, Wilhelm Hofmann and his colleagues equipped 205 participants (66 per cent female, average age 25; mostly students, but also the general public) in Würzburg, Germany with Blackberry smartphones. For seven days, the participants were beeped seven times a day and asked to report whether they were experiencing a desire now or in the preceding 30 minutes. The participants noted what their desire(s) was, how keenly it was felt, whether it caused internal conflict, whether they attempted to resist it, their success, as well as who they were with and where they were. Data was also collected on the participants’ personalities.
“To our knowledge,” the researchers said, “this study is the first one that has used experience sampling methods to map the course of desire and self-control in everyday life.”
Here are some of the basic findings. The participants were experiencing a desire on about half the times they were beeped. Most often (28 per cent) this was hunger. Other common urges were related to: sleep (10 per cent), thirst (9 per cent), media use (8 per cent), social contact (7 per cent), sex (5 per cent), and coffee (3 per cent). About half of these desires were described as causing internal conflict, and an attempt was made to actively resist about 40 per cent of them. Desires that caused conflict were more likely to prompt an attempt at active self-constraint. Such resistance was often effective. In the absence of resistance, 70 per cent of desires were consummated; with resistance this fell to 17 per cent.
“Inner conflict is a frequent feature of daily life,” the researchers said. “The findings suggest that self-regulation is needed many times in a typical day, because conflicts are frequent.”
Strong desires and weak desires were just as likely to provoke an attempt at self-restaint, but as you’d expect, it was strong desires that were least likely to be constrained. However, even desires rated by participants as “irresistible” were often successfully controlled.
Broadly speaking, personality traits were related to participants’ experience of desire and conflict, whereas environmental factors, such as the company of others, had a bearing on whether those desires were enacted and/or resisted.
For example, people who scored highly on a measure of trait self-control had just as many desires, but they were less likely to report experiencing internal conflict; their desires were generally weaker; and they attempted to resist them less often. These findings are revealing. It’s not that people with high self-control have saintly willpower, it seems. Rather, they seem to avoid putting themselves in situations in which they are exposed to problematic temptations. “The result is not a desire-free life,” the researchers said. “Au contraire, the result appears to be that they mainly have desires that they can satisfy.”
Other relevant personality factors included perfectionism (associated with strong desires, high conflict and frequent resistance) and narcissism, which was associated with less conflict – these people felt they were entitled to their desires.
As for environmental factors: being highly inebriated weakened resistance to desires; desires were felt more strongly; and they also led to more internal conflict. The presence of other people, meanwhile, increased people’s ability to resist conflict-inducing desires – perhaps because of the fear of disapproval, or maybe other people’s help was sought to fight temptation. Company also led to fewer desires being consummated, even ones that weren’t resisted. But there was an exception to this – if other people were engaging in the desired behaviour, then this had the effect of weakening resistance and made it more likely that the desire would be fulfilled. Finally, when at work, desire provoked inner conflict more than it did in any other context.
“Our findings suggest that desire is a common, recurrent theme in the daily lives of modern citizens,” Hofmann and his team concluded. ” … everyday life may be an ongoing drama in which inner factors set the stage for motivation and conflict, while external factors contribute to how well people manage to resist and enact their current wants and longings.”
Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R., Förster, G., and Vohs, K. (2011). Everyday temptations: An experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0026545