Scene from 2003 movie "Elf" when Will Ferrell chugs a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola. Scene from 2003 movie "Elf" when Will Ferrell chugs a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola. We all need something to wash down our cheat meal. (Photo: New Line Cinema)

Want more self-control? Stop trying so hard

A new study says the desire to resist life's many temptations may make you more likely to give in to them.

We've all been there. You see an outfit you love, but you're over your limit already. You're eyeing that towering slice of chocolate cake, but swimsuit season is coming.

Resisting temptation is part of life. It's necessary for survival; after all, we'd fail as a species if we gave in to every whim, every indulgence, every moment of weakness. So we all, to varying degrees, practice some form of self-control. And if we're lucky, our desire to resist those many temptations pays off ... in the form of a healthier and morally sound existence.

However, a recent study out of Israel's Bar-Ilan University found that our best efforts to practice self-control may be coming up short. In a bit of psychological irony, it turns out that the more self-control you want to have, the less you may actually have.

Close-up of delicious donuts.Temptations are everywhere. And they're usually full of sugar. (Photo: KasperKay/Shutterstock)

"One of the main messages of this paper is that although it's good for society that both children and adults have a high level of self-control, the mere desire for self-control could be an obstacle to achieving it," says Dr. Liad Uziel, of the Department of Psychology at Bar-Ilan University. Uziel conducted the research with Professor Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University and the University of Queensland. "Thus, while intended to help people gain more self-control, the common practice of driving people to desire more self-control runs the risk of actually undermining their confidence and increasing their doubts that they have the resources to exhibit self-control."

In other words, people with a stronger desire for self-control have a harder time actually exerting it. Why? Because when you're faced with a difficult task, your desire to overcome it translates to a sense that you don't have what it takes to do so. That turns into a diminished belief in your ability to handle tasks like this, and therefore, you're disengaged from the task. So you're worse off than where you started, without even trying. Bravo!

Woman choosing between healthy and unhealthy meal.Intention and behavior don't always meet in the right place. (Photo: IAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock)

And in another surprising finding, predisposition didn't matter, either. Say you consider yourself a "doer", i.e. someone who carries through on his/her intentions. You would think that would crown you the High Priestess of Self-Control, right? Science be damned!

Wrong. Even for people who exhibit a high level of "trait self-control" – a basic predisposition to show self-control – the outcome was the same. A strong desire for self-control had a negative impact on all individuals' ability to follow through.

So what's the lesson here? We're no scientists, but we can take a guess: Stop trying so hard! Let the chips fall, even if they're the chocolate kind and they're falling right out of the sky and into your mouth.

Monica savors a piece of chocolate cake in a scene from the series "Friends."Go ahead. Give in. (Photo: Fanpop)

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