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Saying "No" to Temptation: Want-to Motivation Improves Self-Regulation by Reducing Temptation Rather Than by Increasing Self-Control

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Self-regulation has been conceptualized as the interplay between controlled and impulsive processes; however, most research has focused on the controlled side (i.e., effortful self-control). The present studies focus on the effects of motivation on impulsive processes, including automatic preferences for goal-disruptive stimuli and subjective reports of temptations and obstacles, contrasting them with effects on controlled processes. This is done by examining people's implicit affective reactions in the face of goal-disruptive "temptations" (Studies 1 and 2), subjective reports of obstacles (Studies 2 and 3) and expended effort (Study 3), as well as experiences of desires and self-control in real-time using experience sampling (Study 4). Across these multiple methods, results show that want-to motivation results in decreased impulsive attraction to goal-disruptive temptations and is related to encountering fewer obstacles in the process of goal pursuit. This, in turn, explains why want-to goals are more likely to be attained. Have-to motivation, on the other hand, was unrelated to people's automatic reactions to temptation cues but related to greater subjective perceptions of obstacles and tempting desires. The discussion focuses on the implications of these findings for self-regulation and motivation. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved).
Saying “No” to Temptation: Want-to Motivation Improves Self-Regulation
by Reducing Temptation Rather Than by Increasing Self-Control
Marina Milyavskaya
McGill University
Michael Inzlicht
University of Toronto
Nora Hope and Richard Koestner
McGill University
Self-regulation has been conceptualized as the interplay between controlled and impulsive processes; how-
ever, most research has focused on the controlled side (i.e., effortful self-control). The present studies focus
on the effects of motivation on impulsive processes, including automatic preferences for goal-disruptive
stimuli and subjective reports of temptations and obstacles, contrasting them with effects on controlled
processes. This is done by examining people’s implicit affective reactions in the face of goal-disruptive
“temptations” (Studies 1 and 2), subjective reports of obstacles (Studies 2 and 3) and expended effort (Study
3), as well as experiences of desires and self-control in real-time using experience sampling (Study 4). Across
these multiple methods, results show that want-to motivation results in decreased impulsive attraction to
goal-disruptive temptations and is related to encountering fewer obstacles in the process of goal pursuit. This,
in turn, explains why want-to goals are more likely to be attained. Have-to motivation, on the other hand, was
unrelated to people’s automatic reactions to temptation cues but related to greater subjective perceptions of
obstacles and tempting desires. The discussion focuses on the implications of these findings for self-regulation
and motivation.
Keywords: self-regulation, goal motivation, self-control, temptations, goal pursuit
Self-regulation plays a key role in many domains in our life, from
maintaining a healthy diet to being productive at work to resisting
getting angry at your spouse after a tiring day. Indeed, many of
today’s societal ills are attributed to poor self-regulation— eating too
much junk food, smoking, drugs, corruption, and violence are only
some of the problems that (at least according to popular thought)
would disappear if only people were better at controlling their im-
pulses. Attempts at self-regulation typically involve setting a specific
goal to pursue: “Lose 10 lbs.,” “write two hours per day,” “spend
more time with my kids,” or “quit smoking.” However, although such
goals can help people in guiding their actions, they are by no means
a guarantee of successful self-regulation.
Typically when people talk about self-regulation, they usually
mean “self-control,” which can be defined as the effortful inhibi-
tion of impulses or the overcoming of temptations (but see Fujita,
2011, for an alternate definition). Thus, self-regulation is often
thought to rely exclusively on the application of effort. However,
we prefer to use a broader definition of self-regulation that focuses
on goal-directed behavior in general (Carver & Scheier, 1982,
2011). Specifically, we use “self-regulation” as a broad term
referring to all manner of goal pursuit, which can include both
effortful control of behavior, but also effortless, automatic, or
habitual forms of goal directed behavior (de Ridder, Lensvelt-
Mulders, Finkernauer, Stok, & Baumeister, 2012;Fujita, 2011). As
such, self-regulation often consists of balancing self-control efforts
against the presence and strength of temptations and impulses that
can distract or impede one’s goal pursuits and must be effortfully
overcome. Although as important as self-control, this second “im-
pulse modulation” component of self-regulation is frequently over-
looked. How frequent and strong is the craving for the cigarette or
for the chocolate cake? Furthermore, could the strength and fre-
quency of these cravings depend on how people construe their
self-regulatory goals? In this article we investigate this question,
looking at the role of goal motivation on the impulsive and
effortful components of self-regulation.
Dual Models of Self-Regulation
The process of self-regulation can be thought of as a seesaw. On
one side are the impulses and desires—reaching for a chocolate,
craving a cigarette, sneaking a peak at Facebook. On the other side are
all the reasons to resist these desires—wanting to lose weight, trying
to quit smoking, trying to get work done; these are typically demar-
cated by the long-term goals that may be jeopardized by giving in to
This article was published Online First May 18, 2015.
Marina Milyavskaya, Department of Educational and Counselling Psy-
chology, McGill University; Michael Inzlicht, Department of Psychology
and Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto; Nora Hope
and Richard Koestner, Department of Psychology, McGill University.
As of July 1, 2015, Marina Milyavskaya will be affiliated with the
Department of Psychology, Carleton University.
This research was supported in part by grants from the Social Sciences
and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to Marina Milyavs-
kaya and Richard Koestner.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Marina
Milyavskaya, Department of Psychology, Carleton University, 550 Loeb
Building, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, ON, Canada, K1S 5B6. E-mail:
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology © 2015 American Psychological Association
2015, Vol. 109, No. 4, 677–693 0022-3514/15/$12.00
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Self-control is typically viewed as a key ingredient responsible for effective self-regulation and personal goal attainment. This study used experience sampling, daily diary, and prospective data collection to investigate the immediate and semester-long consequences of effortful self-control and temptations on depletion and goal attainment. Results showed that goal attainment was influenced by experiences of temptations rather than by actively resisting or controlling those temptations. This study also found that simply experiencing temptations led people to feel depleted. Depletion in turn mediated the link between temptations and goal attainment, such that people who experienced increased temptations felt more depleted and thus less likely to achieve their goals. Critically, results of Bayesian analyses strongly indicate that effortful self-control was consistently unrelated to goal attainment throughout all analyses.
Although observers of human behavior have long been aware that people regularly struggle with internal conflict when deciding whether to behave responsibly or indulge in impulsivity, psychologists and economists did not begin to empirically investigate this type of want/should conflict until recently. In this article, we review and synthesize the latest research on want/should conflict, focusing our attention on the findings from an empirical literature on the topic that has blossomed over the last 15 years. We then turn to a discussion of how individuals and policy makers can use what has been learned about want/should conflict to help decision makers select far-sighted options. © 2008, Association for Psychological Science. All rights reserved.
Six studies explore the role of goal shielding in self-regulation:by examining how the activation of focal goals to which the individual is committed inhibits the accessibility, of alternative goals. Consistent evidence was found for such goal shielding, and a number of its moderators were identified: Individuals' level of commitment to the focal goal, their degree of anxiety and depression, their need for cognitive closure, and differences in their goal-related tenacity. Moreover, inhibition of alternative goals was found to be, more pronounced when they serve the same overarching purpose as the focal goal, but lessened when the alternative goals facilitate focal goal attainment. Finally; goal shielding was shown to have beneficial consequences for goal pursuit and attainment.
Intrinsic and extrinsic types of motivation have been widely studied, and the distinction between them has shed important light on both developmental and educational practices. In this review we revisit the classic definitions of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in light of contemporary research and theory. Intrinsic motivation remains an important construct, reflecting the natural human propensity to learn and assimilate. However, extrinsic motivation is argued to vary considerably in its relative autonomy and thus can either reflect external control or true self-regulation. The relations of both classes of motives to basic human needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are discussed.