Which would you rather have, a dessert or a mouthwatering warm chocolate chip cookie? Chances are, the specific description of the cookie sounds more appealing than the general category of dessert.
Because specific descriptions are more appealing than general ones, specific temptations are also harder to overcome than general ones. Research suggests that if you sit in front of a cookie and think about how wonderfully delicious it will be as it melts in your mouth, you will have a harder time keeping yourself from eating it than if you just think of it as a food. So, if you are trying to avoid snacks or want to save your appetite for dinner, it is better to think about foods abstractly than specifically.
The great thing about this difference between thinking about things specifically and thinking about things abstractly is under your control. That is, you can choose to think about the temptations in your life either as specific things you are trying to avoid or just as generic versions of a broad temptation.
The question is whether being good at shifting the way you think about the items in your world actually helps with your self-control. This was explored in a paper in the April, 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Karen MacGregor, Jessica Carenvale, Nicole Dusthimer, and Kentaro Fujita.
In one study, they looked at people’s judgments of how helpful various statements were in controlling the number of cookies they eat during a taste test. Some of those statements were abstract (I will be evaluating cookies conscientiously), while others were specific (I will be crunching on cookies). Participants differed in whether they recognized that specific statements are less helpful in self-control than abstract statements.
There was also variation within this group in how concerned people were with dieting. Dieters are people who are focused on their self-control related to food. The researchers asked participants to report their height and weight and used that to calculate body mass index (BMI). Then, they correlated BMI with the degree to which participants recognized that abstract statements are helpful for self-control. The more that participants who care about diet recognize that abstract statements are helpful, the lower their BMI.
That is, participants who understand how to use abstract statements to control temptation are better at controlling temptation than those who don’t.
Across several other studies, the researchers used different measures of recognition of the value of abstract statements for self-control and looked both at dieting and studying as long-term goals. In each study, the people who know that abstract statements help with self-control were best at avoiding temptations.
Happily, this skill can be learned.
If you want to prevent short-term temptations from derailing important long-term goals, you can change the way you think about those temptations. Focusing on the specifics of those temptations—particularly their desirable characteristics—makes it harder to resist those temptations. Thinking about the temptations abstractly, though, makes them less likely to engage your motivation to act. And that helps you to continue to do things that will help you to achieve those long-term goals.
MacGregor, K.E., Carnevale, J.J., Dusthimer, N.E., & Fujita, K. (2017). Knowledge of the self-control benefits of high-level versus low-level construal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(4), 607-620.