Q & A With Psychological Scientist Wilhelm Hofmann

Wilhelm Hofmann is a psychological scientist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

We invited our Facebook and Twitter followers to submit their questions to Hofmann on self-control and temptation. Below are his answers:

In your study, did you ask people what they craved or liked, or did you choose a typical food most people try to stay away from while they are dieting?

We know from food diary and laboratory studies that dieters have particular problems staying away from highly palatable food, ¾ food the body finds rewarding because it contains high amounts of fat, sugar or salt. Thus, in our research we used a broad set of word and picture stimuli such as “hamburger”, “pizza”, “fries”, “sweets”, “ice-cream”, “cake”, etc. to represent this category of highly palatable food. It is a good point that not every person may have been affected to the same degree by the same stimulus as there are clearly personal preferences, depending presumably on genetic factors and one’s learning history and socialization.  However, our hope was that, by and large, every dieter would be tempted by at least some of the stimuli (and fine-grained analyses not reported in the paper showed that most of the stimuli we used worked together in the same direction). It would be great to see whether results get even stronger when we have people generate their personal food temptations in an ostensibly unrelated part of the experiment and then use these personalized stimuli as primes. Whereas such an ideographic approach gets even closer at people’s everyday struggles with food, it also implies giving up some experimental control over what is being presented in the reaction time task.

In your study on non-dieters vs. dieters, non-dieters seem to have a stronger willpower and show more self control with food, than dieters. Is it possible that these non dieters may have a weaker willpower than the dieters when it comes to something completely different?

We focused specifically on people’s hedonic psychological reactions to food because we were interested how dieters and non-dieters respond to temptations emotionally within a relatively short time frame. We did not measure actual food consumption, though. Hence we have to be somewhat cautious in inferring something about people’s willpower, as willpower is traditionally judged with regard to what people end up doing rather than with regard to what kinds of immediate emotional reactions they have to events. However, recent research including our own suggests that the control of emotion, even the down-regulation of immediate emotional reactions, form an important part of what willpower may be essentially be about: If I can quickly redirect my attention back to my long-term goals (e.g., dieting) and stay emotionally calm when temptation hails me, chances are higher that I will be able to not engage in the problematic behavior. If my attention gets zoomed in on the temptation instead, my desire will grow and, if not actively resisted, ultimately take control over my behavior. Fast down-regulation of emotional responses to temptation may therefore be an important and potentially low-cost mechanism of self-control.

This being said, we found evidence that dieters were doing a pretty good job under normal conditions, that is, when they were not pre-exposed to tempting food at the beginning of our study. In fact, these dieters had the lowest emotional reactions to the palatable food stimuli presented in our main reaction time task. This finding is consistent with earlier research by my colleague Ayelet Fishbach, who was among the first to propose that successful self-control may often take place at very early and automatic stages of information processing. Those dieters in the pre-exposure condition, however, did not show such a beneficial pattern. When we (literally) “wet their appetite” by exposing them to a number of tempting food words at the beginning of the study, their hedonic reactions to the later food pictures were amplified and they appeared to have a harder time to emotionally disengage. Their responses suggested that they were in what we called a “hot” state – emotionally stuck in the pleasure evoked by the tempting food. Taken together, the dynamical picture that emerges here fits our everyday observation that dieters are often remarkably good at resisting temptation, at least for a while, but fall prey occasionally when they have been tempted for too long or otherwise end up in situations where they let their guard down, such as when being intoxicated, depleted, or stressed (see below).

Does everybody have a weak spot somewhere? Overall, there seems to be a slight positive relationship between dietary restraint and general impulsivity, suggesting that dieters may also fare less well in other domains. The effect may be driven, however, by the subgroup of dieters who are unsuccessful, that is, those who, despite being on a diet, do not really lose or even gain weight over time. High trait impulsivity, that is a high sensitivity to immediate rewards and a tendency to act fast on one’s urges, may be one of the reasons why this subgroup has trouble maintaining weight. This general tendency may also affect other spheres of life. In contrast, successful dieters may be the ones with better overall self-control, and hence they may also do better elsewhere. Thus the answer to this question may vary depending on which subgroup we look at. Things become more complicated when thinking about the effects dieting itself may have on one’s self-control ability in the short run. While you are sticking to it, dieting is a strenuous exercise and saps self-control resources much like driving a car depletes its fuel tank. My colleague Roy Baumeister has shown that reduced control resources diminish the chances that other acts of self-control happening close in time are successful. To the extent that a person uses a good deal of his or her available self-control resources to stick to the daily dieting plan, he or she may do less well in other domains such as studying for an exam or monitoring one’s expenses. This depletion effect may contribute its part to the observation that dieters, on average, show signs of weaker willpower in other spheres of life.

Why are we disciplined some times, and so impulsive other times?

Whether we act in line with our long-term goals or give in to temptation hinges on at least three things: our degree of commitment to our self-control goals, the actual power of the temptation, and a probably large number of circumstantial factors. I tend to think of people’s behavior as the outcome of a struggle between the different goals, motives, and impulses a person may be having at a given point in time. Over socialization, most of us have learned very well to stick to both external standards and more personal goals that we have set for ourselves. We humans have a remarkable capacity to remind ourselves of these standards and goals and anticipate the negative (long-term) consequences of acting against them. Thus, oftentimes our long-term goals hold other, more short-term motives and impulses in check. The outcome of the struggle can be quite different, however, when we encounter a temptation that we find particularly appealing (not all temptations are created equal), such as our favorite high-calorie food. In such cases, we have to overcome the pull of a strong and growing desire for that food. And whether it succeeds in doing so may also depend in whether the circumstances are conducive or detrimental for this kind of demanding mental activity. Research in the last 20 years and beyond has accumulated numerous “risk” conditions such as resource depletion (see above), stress, alcohol intoxication, a focus on the concrete, aspects of the situation, and “visceral”, bodily factors such as need deprivation which make self-control more likely to fail.

In the study that looked at dieters and non-dieters, what do you think accounts for the difference in affective responses between them? Are some people just generally predisposed to have greater affective responses to tempting/pleasurable stimuli? Or do you think our level of affective response is something that develops over time, interacting with other aspects of personality and behavior (e.g., self-control)?

Previous research had argued, in a relatively static way, that restrained eaters may simply have more positive hedonic responses to tempting food (which is why they overeat and eventually decide to diet). But prior research yielded only inconclusive evidence for this hedonic response hypothesis. In our study, we tried to argue for a more dynamical view of affective responding on the background of a self-control framework. As described in more detail above, we assumed that the chronic goal to diet may effectively down-regulate hedonic responses towards tempting food most of the time; but when pre-exposed to tempting food, this inhibitory mechanism may eventually lose its strength and the relationship may reverse itself. And that’s exactly what we found. Thus, the key to understanding problems with dieting may lie in taking a close, dynamical look at what factors (such as pre-exposure) have a short-term effect on people’s affective responses toward food which may then lead to violations of one’s dieting goals.

People talk a lot about trying to improve self-control. But if affective responses play an equally important role, are there ways we can intervene with these affective responses that would also help us avoid temptation?

I totally agree that we should watch out for ways and strategies to intervene with these (early) affective responses. Prior research on the suppression of emotion has found that willful suppression of emotions can often backfire. Hence, perhaps we need to look more into what Gross (1998) has termed antecedent-focused or proactive emotion regulation strategies. Besides avoiding tempting situations in the first place, we can try to orient our attention in such a way as not to focus on tempting cues too much. Successful dieting in the presence of tempting food may partially hinge on our ability to find powerful distractors that keep us from elaborating on and ruminating about why it would be nice to have this or that treat. Related lines of research spearheaded by Lotte van Dillen and Eva Kemps in fact show that distracting people from processing tempting stimuli (by occupying their minds with powerful distractors) can undermine cravings and desires.  Thus, if you are on a diet, surround yourself with things and activities that keep you mentally engaged such as interesting work, readings, etc. as this may help prevent unwanted food cravings in response to actual or imagined food cues. Furthermore, work from my lab has also shown that affective responses to tempting stimuli become less positive when these temptations are processed in non-consummatory ways (Hofmann et al., 2010). For instance, imagining a piece of dark chocolate that is being offered to you as a piece of “wood” may prevent you from entering into a “hot” mental state. In that research, we also found that forming very concrete intentions to reject or avoid a particular temptation also helped in curbing immediate affective responses to tempting stimuli. This work was inspired by Peter Gollwitzer’s research on implementation intentions which can be seen as very helpful devices in pre-programming one’s mind to react better to certain (tempting) situations you are likely to encounter. Even though these mental self-control strategies (attention regulation, mental transformations, implementation intentions) may not always be practicable, I believe it is still worth equipping oneself with these and similar strategies and tools because we often tend to overestimate how well we’ll be able to resist temptation in the heat of the moment (see Loran Nordgren’s latest research on the restraint bias). Again, however, the most effective way to resist temptation is to set up your life in a way so as to largely avoid it.

Do your findings offer any tips to overcome temptation and gain willpower against things like holiday indulgence and food?

Unfortunately not. The present findings, by themselves, only point to the importance of affective responses which may then develop into more full-blown desires and cravings, as the work by Kavanagh and colleagues (2005) so aptly described the problem. The strategies I outlined above (Question 6) have been proven effective in laboratory studies in preventing and curbing desires and cravings. However, more extensive field research using experience sampling and other methods is needed at this point to find out which strategies work best. But apart from the new focus on desires and cravings, there are numerous further tips that can be derived from the broader literature on self-control. For instance, the work on ego depletion by Baumeister and colleagues referred to earlier suggests that people allow for multiple breaks during their days, care for enough sleep overnight, and avoid resource-drainers, if possible, in order to keep their self-regulatory resources at an optimal level (e.g., see Baumeister & Tierney’s recent book on willpower). In addition, some work (e.g., Oaten & Cheng, 2006, 2007) also suggests that willpower can be improved in the long run via repeated practice just as physical stamina improves via repeated exercise.

Self-control isn’t easy, is it? Should we be more tolerant of those who struggle with it?

I am glad this issue has been brought up. Up to this point, I have been arguing and responding much in favor of a view of self-control as the “virtue” and indulgence as the “vice”. But we have to be careful not to paint things in black and white only. Self-control is good and important for one’s (and other people’s) well-being, but only up to a certain point. Over-control can have many harmful consequences, too, such as when workaholics overwork themselves to exhaustion or when people diet compulsively up to a point at which it becomes life-threatening. Thus, it is important to put things into perspective. There are certainly some domains where impulsivity and indulgence are clearly unwanted, such as with aggressive impulses to physically harm another person or with sexual attraction that is not returned. Here, society must enforce norms, rules and laws to protect the well-being of others who may be negatively affected by a lack of self-control. But then again, there are other spheres of life, such as the regulation of one’s personal food intake, where an occasional treat may do no harm at all. In fact, occasional treats may even be part of a larger balance between steady self-control and occasional indulgence, as people deliberately reward themselves for past achievements in order to stay motivated at the larger task ahead.

The difficulty with self-control is to find the right balance between control and letting go. When we say people struggle with self-control we tend to mean that they have troubles living up to the goals they have set for themselves (or others have set for them). But we often tend to overlook that these goals may be overly ambitious and unrealistic in light of people’s life circumstances. For instance, rather than mocking our partner for missing his or her weight loss goals for this week again, we should help him or her to adjust and recalibrate the weekly goals so as to eventually be able to reach one and feel proud about it. Without such repeated “little successes” along the way, people will become overly frustrated and disengage from the goal (“I am never gonna make this”). Of course, being tolerant to others who struggle does not mean to become indifferent to their failures because complete indifference can be equally demotivating as giving people a hard time. It means to appreciate and support their honest efforts and to make it easier for them to recover from occasional failures along the way.

Is the reason for this restraint in non dieters vs. dieters, partially due to the fact that non dieters never feel like they have to give up something they really want? (whereas dieters are always fighting a battle with food?)

That is, in my view, one very plausible way to read our results. In fact, we were puzzled to see that non-dieters even showed signs of having “lost interest” in the tempting food after they had initially been pre-exposed to it, as their emotional reactions to tempting food in our main task quickly faded again. I think it is fair to say that dieters, in contrast, are to some extent “obsessed” or chronically concerned with the highly palatable food they are trying to avoid. Under normal circumstances they are good at suppressing or inhibiting this “obsession”. Under pre-exposure they become less successful and the formerly inhibited emotional responses come through.

Are some individuals simply better than others at self regulation?

Yes, definitely. On top of the many situational factors that impact our ability and motivation to control ourselves (see Question 4), people also differ in their dispositional levels of willpower. Research at the intersection of personality psychology and neurocognitive psychology has been making a lot of progress in identifying the underlying cognitive architecture that supports successful self-control. The upshot is that self-control is supported by several interlocking executive functions such as attention regulation, working memory operations, and inhibitory capacity that all appear to draw on prefrontal cortex regions of the brain. Cognitive psychologists have devised tests of these functions that clearly show a large degree of inter-individual variability, and current research tries to evaluate the extent to which these functions can be improved via cognitive training and the extent to which such improvements translate into better self-control in everyday life.

It seems like figuring out how to people out of the hot state (elevated and enduring emotional response to a stimulus) is pretty important in helping them to regulate their behavior. Is there any research that looks at which techniques might be helpful in getting us out of this hot state?

I am not aware of research that has specifically looked at this intriguing issue of how to get people out of a ‘hot’ state again once they are in it. My hunch is that the direction of attention (away from the tempting thoughts) will, once more, be a crucial variable. However, it may be considerably easier to prevent the occurrence of a hot state in the first place than to effectively down-regulate more full-blown desires and cravings once they have emerged in consciousness and turned into elaborated desires (Kavanagh et al., 2005), similar to the way it is easier to extinguish a little flame than a full-blown fire.

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