It happened to me just this morning—a cookie sat right in front of me, begging to be eaten. I know I’m trying to eat more healthfully, but the buttery sweet treat beckoned, and I caved.
This is a classic self-control conflict. There was an immediate temptation that would give me momentary pleasure, but it conflicted with a long-term goal to eat more healthfully.
When it comes to these self-control conflicts, we can think about things in two ways. One way is to think concretely—focusing on the details and the present moment. The soft texture, the melty chocolate chips, the buttery richness…you get it.
The other way is to think abstractly—focusing more on the bigger picture. This includes thinking about the future, my health, and my long-term goals for myself.
Research has shown that if you want to resist temptation, you’d best adopt the abstract mindset.
To see whether people could improve their self-control by changing their mindset, researchers ran a bunch of experiments subtly nudging people to think in more abstract or concrete ways.
In one study, they looked at students and the self-control it can take to keep studying—because when it comes to studying, there are a ton of possible temptations: playing video games, reading Highbrow lessons, watching TV, etc.
To get people thinking abstractly or concretely, they asked the students to do a quick mental exercise at the start of the study. The activity was to think about categories associated with 40 different words, but the instructions could come in two slightly different variations.
To get half of the students into an abstract mindset, they had them think about what category each word belonged to (e.g., “pasta is an example of what?”). To get the other students into a concrete mindset, they had them think about those words as categories of their own and asked them to get more specific (e.g., “an example of pasta is what?”) See how each version of the activity gets you thinking in a different way?
Finally, all of the students rated a bunch of possible studying-related temptations (partying, television, etc.). The results showed that the students who were in the abstract mindset found the temptations less alluring than the students who were in the concrete mindset! This was especially the case for people with a strong goal to study. In other words, especially when a goal is important to you, thinking more abstractly helps diminish a temptation’s allure.
The next time you feel pulled toward a sinful diet-busting treat or any other temptation, take note of how you’re thinking about the situation. Refocus your attention away from the concrete details that make the thing so tempting and consider the big picture. Pull the camera back like it’s a movie and think more long-term.
For more on self-control, check out: “Improve Self-Control with 5 Science-Based Tricks.”
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