Monday, February 11, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Four, Part One

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Four of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. Chapter Four has this tantalizing title: "License to Sin: Why Being Good Gives Us Permission to Be Bad." This chapter has so much "meat" to it that I'm going dividing our review into two parts. I'll post the second part on Wednesday. Let's start with Sonnet's introduction to Chapter Four.

Chapter Four! We have made it four weeks, that’s almost a month into this series. I think we’ve all earned a little something for doing so well and staying with our willpower challenges for a whole month! Plus, it’s Valentine’s Day this week. Here, have some chocolate hearts… Oh wait. Oops. This kind of pitfall is the focus of this chapter: How we use what’s called “moral licensing” to convince ourselves that we’re such great people and we’ve made such awesome progress on our goals that we really, truly should choose to go against our willpower challenges. So this chapter shifts from talking about the physical issues at work behind willpower struggles to the mental games we play.

I will admit, either I am deeply in denial or I didn’t find much of this chapter ringing true for me. I am the kind of person who does make choices to slack off, eat cookies, and ignore the piles of clutter… but then I’m also happy enough to own those choices. Yep. I ate that entire chocolate cake. It was awesome, too. Yes, I spent the entire day while the kids were at school napping. Maybe not the best choice for me, OK, but it felt good and I got what I needed from it. Maybe I suffer from inflated self-esteem?

It's funny--and cool--that Sonnet and I are finding different chapters to be eye-opening. Last week was "her week," and this week was mine! This chapter really helped me understand what is behind most of my willpower failures. When I look at Chapter Four of my copy of the book, there's practically more underlined in it than not!
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I tend to frame things in terms of "right or wrong." And I try to motivate myself by "doing what's right," but somehow that often doesn't work. The biggest reason for that, according to McGonigal? "If the only thing motivating your self-control is the desire to be a good enough person, you're going to give in whenever you're already feeling good about yourself" (p. 86).

As Sonnet puts it, The theme of this chapter, I would say, is summed up in this quote from the book: “We need to feel like the kind of person who wants to do the right thing.” Wants to, not has to. If you tell yourself that _____ is the right thing to do, you are going to talk yourself out of it. Moralizing is not going to get you there. ______ needs to be an action that helps you meet your goals if it is going to be something you can stick with.

"When it comes to right and wrong," McGonigal points out, "most of us are not striving for moral perfection. We just want to feel good enough--which then gives us permission to do whatever we want" (p. 83, emphasis mine).  

Wow--I do that! In the past, I've moralized the idea of having a decluttered house. It seemed like decluttering was a "good" or "right" thing to do. So why didn't I do it? "I can't be good at everything," I told myself. "I do a lot of things well. Keeping a clean house just isn't one of them. And that's okay." In other words, "I don't need to declutter. I'm a good enough person without doing that!"

And really, it is okay to have cluttered areas in my house! It's not a moral failing, though I've certainly attached enough guilt to it through the years! The problem is, I wasn't paying attention to what I really wanted. I've realized that I like living in an uncluttered environment. I was so stuck in the "right vs. wrong" cycle, justifying my "weakness," that I was robbing myself of something I really wanted! Now I'm moving towards what I want--not because it's "the right thing to do," but because it brings me more peace and contentment.

Let's delve more into how we use "good" things to justify willpower failures. Here's Sonnet:

Chapter Four talks about the hazard of moral licensing, where we feel so good about ourselves because of some real or perceived action that we give ourselves permission to behave badly because we’ve ‘earned’ it. There’s the related “halo effect” where we look for any reason to say yes to something we should say no to (It’s organic! It’s on sale! It’s for charity!) and then feel good about saying yes instead of feeling guilty. My mom tells a story from her childhood that is a great example of both these effects. When she was a teen, she decided one summer that she was going to swim every day in order to lose weight. She took the bus to the pool downtown with total devotion, but after weeks of swimming her weight wasn’t budging. What she hadn’t counted on? The bus route had her transferring at a stop right next to a doughnut shop, and she ate a doughnut every day on her trip. She ‘earned’ it because she was being good about her exercise (moral licensing) and because she is a diabetic, it was a healthy choice to keep her glucose up (halo effect.) I love this story, because can’t everyone relate?

When we feel good about ourselves, we tend to make less-than-positive choices. It's like we've already put a checkmark in our "Good" box on our personal report cards, and we don't feel the need to put another checkmark there. The scientific studies that support the "halo effect" and other types of moral licensing are so fascinating to me! Here are some examples:
  • "People who first remember a time they acted generously give 60 percent less money to a charitable request than people who have not just recalled a past good deed" (p. 84).
  • "Another study found that merely considering donating money to a charity--without actually handing over any cash--increased people's desire to treat themselves at a mall" (p. 85, emphasis mine).
  • "In one study, [researchers] reminded successful dieters of how much progress they had made toward their ideal weight. They then offered the dieters a thank-you gift of either an apple or a chocolate bar. Eighty-five percent of the self-congratulating dieters chose the chocolate bar over the apple, compared with only 38 percent of dieters who were not reminded of their progress" (p. 89).
  • And my personal favorite: "Researchers have found that if you pair a cheeseburger with a green salad, diners estimate that the meal has fewer calories than the same cheeseburger served by itself" (p. 99). That's quite a halo effect!
It's such a crazy trap--we do something good, or even think about doing something good, and then sabotage ourselves by "rewarding" ourselves with something completely counterproductive! Just being aware of this reasoning can really be helpful. But Wednesday we'll share more about the moralizing that goes on in our crazy heads, and practical ways to change that reasoning so that we can succeed in our willpower challenges!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

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