Those Who Use Willpower Deemed More Trustworthy

Summary: Individuals who rely on willpower to resist temptations are perceived as more trustworthy than those using external commitment strategies like swear jars or internet-blocking apps. This study involved over 2,800 U.S. participants in online experiments, comparing perceptions of integrity between those using internal versus external methods for achieving goals.

The findings suggest a societal bias favors self-reliance over external aids, impacting the adoption of potentially beneficial commitment strategies. This research highlights how personal choices in goal achievement can influence social trustworthiness perceptions.

Key Facts:

  1. Participants rated individuals using willpower as more trustworthy than those relying on external commitment strategies.
  2. The study involved a series of experiments with over 2,800 participants evaluating hypothetical scenarios on achieving self-control.
  3. Despite recognizing the effectiveness of commitment strategies, there is a hesitation to use them publicly due to perceived character deficiencies.

Source: APA

People who use willpower to overcome temptations and achieve their goals are perceived as more trustworthy than those who use strategies that involve external incentives or deterrents – such as swear jars or internet-blocking apps – according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“The knowledge that people can use external commitment strategies to overcome self-control problems has existed in some form for thousands of years. Since at least the time of Homer and Odysseus, the focus has primarily been on the efficacy of these strategies for the person choosing to engage in them,” said lead author Ariella Kristal, PhD, of Columbia University.

This shows a man sitting in front of a scale.
The researchers believe that the choice to use a commitment strategy signals to others a deficiency in an individual’s character. Credit: Neuroscience News

“This prior work has demonstrated, for example, that Odysseus made the right decision to tie himself to the mast rather than attempting to use willpower to resist the sirens in the moment.”

Known as commitment strategies, these approaches have been shown to improve success for a variety of goals, including smoking cessation, weight loss, academic achievement and saving money, according to Kristal. Despite the benefits of commitment strategies, though, little research has been done on how they affect others’ perceptions of people using them. 

To better understand how people’s use of commitment strategies over willpower affects others’ perceptions of them, Kristal and her co-author, Julian Zlatev, PhD, of Harvard Business School, conducted a series of online experiments involving more than 2,800 participants from the United States.

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In most of the experiments, participants were presented with a hypothetical situation involving individuals who attempted to achieve a goal using willpower or a commitment strategy.

In one experiment, they were asked to rate the integrity of hypothetical individuals who used willpower to avoid an unwanted behavior (e.g., eating junk food or drinking alcohol) versus paying $5 every time they engaged in the unwanted behavior. In another scenario, hypothetical individuals either used willpower or an app to avoid distracting websites like Facebook or Instagram.

Overall, individuals who were described as using commitment strategies to achieve their goals were judged to be less trustworthy than those who used willpower alone. 

In two experiments, researchers found that participants were more likely to rate hypothetical users of commitment strategies as less trustworthy, even though the participants recognized the strategies were more effective than willpower alone.

In another, participants were less likely to choose an external commitment strategy if they thought others might find out.

“People appear particularly hesitant to adopt commitment strategies when their use will be made public and, while not as high, people’s resistance continues to remain elevated even when the use of strategies will be kept private,” said Kristal.

“This occurs despite the fact that people do recognize and acknowledge the benefits of these commitment strategies.”

The researchers believe that the choice to use a commitment strategy signals to others a deficiency in an individual’s character. That is, people believe those who require external aid (as opposed to using just willpower) are more likely to have failed in the past and therefore are less capable of overcoming self-control problems on their own.

“Past failures of self-control can be seen by others as moral failures. Because morality is an important component of integrity in particular, and trustworthiness more broadly, people who rely on commitment strategies may be viewed as less trustworthy than those who simply use willpower,” said Kristal.

These findings have important implications for developing programs and initiatives that rely on external strategies to help people achieve their goals, according to Kristal.

By examining the role of interpersonal judgments in self-control strategy choice, we can begin to understand why people may fail to adopt these beneficial strategies and how to better promote effective strategy use.

About this psychology research news

Author: James Sliwa
Source: APA
Contact: James Sliwa – APA
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Going Beyond the “Self” in Self-Control: Interpersonal Consequences of Commitment Strategies” by Ariella Kristal et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


Going Beyond the “Self” in Self-Control: Interpersonal Consequences of Commitment Strategies

Commitment strategies are effective mechanisms individuals can use to overcome self-control problems. Across seven studies (and two supplemental studies), we explore the negative interpersonal consequences of commitment strategy choice and use.

In Study 1, using an incentivized trust game, we demonstrate that individuals trust people who choose to use a commitment strategy less than those who choose to use willpower to achieve their goals.

Study 2 shows this relationship holds across four domains and for integrity-based trust in particular.

Study 3 provides evidence that it is the choice to use the strategy rather than strategy use itself that incurs this integrity penalty.

In Studies 4–5b, we demonstrate that this effect is driven, at least in part, by the fact that people infer past performance from strategy choice.

Finally, Study 6 provides evidence that people select commitment strategies more in private than in public, which is consistent with the notion that people anticipate the negative consequences of commitment strategy choice.

Thus, we establish the role of willpower as a positive signal in impression formation as well as the negative interpersonal consequences of choosing to rely on external aides when faced with temptation.

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