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The Psychology of Desire reveals how to achieve any New Year’s Resolution

Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham


Photograph from Regents Canal - picture by Raj PersaudDid Oscar Wilde give the best psychological advice on New Year’s Resolutions? These usually involve redoubled, yet fruitless, efforts to resist the temptation you succumbed to last year, so in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1891), Wilde declared, ‘The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.’

William James, an eminent 20th Century Psychologist, illustrates the power of desire in an anecdote from his chapter on ‘Will’ in the ‘The Principles of Psychology’ (1890); An alcoholic was put into an almshouse nearby, but his cravings resulted in various elaborate schemes to get a drink, which had all failed. Then: ‘He went into the wood-yard of the establishment, placed one hand upon the block, and with an axe in the other struck it off at a single blow. With the stump raised and streaming he ran into the house and cried, “Get some rum! get some rum! My hand is off!” In the confusion and bustle of the occasion a bowl of rum was brought, into which he plunged the bleeding member of his body, then raising the bowl to his mouth, drank freely, and exultingly exclaimed, “Now I am satisfied.”’

James also tells of another alcoholic undergoing treatment whose cravings led him to drink from the anatomy jars containing pathology specimens.

William James’ and Oscar Wilde’s sage arguments on how desire normally controls us, anticipates a key finding in modern psychological research; superior self-control has recently been shown an extremely powerful feature of personality, predicting success and happiness more reliably into the future, than possibly any other trait.

But the very latest thinking is that those who score high on self-control lead lives characterised by effective habits and routines, rather than deploying that much active resistance. Better self-control seems to involve avoiding temptations, rather than resisting them. In fact those with high self-control basically don’t waste time or effort battling inducements, because their habits and routines place themselves in environments where enticement is not present. Photograph from Regents Canal - picture by Raj Persaud

This argument arises from a study entitled ‘Everyday Temptations: An Experience Sampling Study of Desire, Conflict, and Self-Control’ where a team of psychologists got over 200 adults in Wurzburg, Germany to wear pagers for a week. Each time they were beeped, they were asked to report on what desires they felt at the moment.

Almost 8000 ‘desire episodes’ were recorded in this study recently published in ‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’, while participants indicated at least one current desire on half the occasions they were beeped, on average, desires were actively resisted on 42% of occasions, but nonetheless enacted on 17% of these ‘resistance attempts’. Now we know the average rate of self-control failure in the general population.

The psychologists, Wilhelm Hofmann (University of Chicago Booth School of Business), Roy Baumeister (Florida State University), Georg Förster (University of Wurzburg) and Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota), who conducted the study, found personality was a key aspect of desire and resistance. Certain personality features were associated with greater weakness when it came to resistance. For example, narcissistic entitlement reflects an attitude that one ought to have what one wants, and indeed deserve more than others, linked to the sense of being a special, superior person; those scoring high in narcissistic entitlement were more likely to enact their desires.

It seems from this and other research, that in fact, you should assume ‘will power’ doesn’t exist, rather than invest in it. Presume you will inevitably succumb to temptation, in which case avoid the lure rather than test yourself. Alcoholics Anonymous’ programme is, roughly speaking, based on this principle, as is the strategy of getting rid of all tobacco or fattening foods from the home. View from Primrose Hill - photography by Raj Persaud

But, sooner or later, temptation crosses your path – what then? A team of psychologists, Evan Forman, James Herbert, Kimberly Hoffman, Adrienne Juarascio and Meghan Butryn, from Drexel University, Philadelphia, asked 48 overweight women to carry a box of candy on their person for 72 hours, while abstaining from the treats.

In the study, to be published in 2013 in the academic journal ‘Eating Behaviors’, the group was assigned to attempt either one of two possible cognitive strategies to resist temptation. The first approach was the standard ‘distraction’ technique most widely deployed today, including trying not to think about the sweets.

The second technique involves ‘acceptance’ rather than active resistance of cravings. In the study entitled ‘Comparison of acceptance-based and standard cognitive-based coping strategies for craving sweets in overweight and obese women’, this second group were taught cravings for sweets are normal and expected, outside voluntary control, accepting cravings without trying to change them.

The latest theory is that it’s the desperate desire to relieve yearning, which contributes to poorer self-control. The study found that compared to standard, ‘control-based’ strategies, ‘acceptance-based’ approaches resulted in reduced cravings and consumption of sweets.

The key here appears to be the mental plan if craving arrived. Two Professors of Psychology at New York University, and world authorities on goal achievement, have shown that two crucial psychological techniques are particularly effective. These are ‘mental contrasting’ (Gabriele Oettingen) and ‘implementation intentions’ (Peter Gollwitzer).

Mental Contrasting involves imagining in detail the desired control over your life, and contrasting that with the present personal predicament. This produces better appreciation of each critical obstacle to better control, generating a focus on overcoming specific hurdles. Implementation Intentions involves detailed planning of not just what you want – which is what New Year’s resolutions focus on – but how you’re going to get it.

Implementation Intentions requires ‘if-then’ thinking – if offered a cigarette or cream bun, what to do then? Photograph from Regents Canal - picture by Raj Persaud

It was possibly the ancient Greeks who first discovered these powerful psychological tactics. Odysseus might be demonstrating them when he plugs his crew’s ears with bee’s wax, anticipating the lure of the Sirens’ songs, enticing passing ships to the rocks. He also asked to be tied to the ship’s mast, preventing him obeying his desires to succumb to the Sirens’ call. True to the legend, if sailors did venture by without falling under their spell, as Odysseus triumphantly did, the Sirens drowned.

Your temptations and desires will also inevitably flounder, if you prepare for those Siren calls, luring you to wreck your resolutions.

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