Take a look at your to-do list. If you’re like most people, chances are you’ve got quite a few things on there, but the most discouraging one is probably “lose weight.”
Why is it that you haven’t been able to check that off your list? You start off optimistic that you’re going to do it this time, but what are the forces at work that either push us toward doing the things we should be doing or make us brush them off and forget? Turns out it’s all about control.
A study by researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey suggests that feeling like you have control of an outcome could lead to greater persistence.
Thirty participants were instructed to play an academic degree decision game while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which detect blood flow changes in the brain. The game was manipulated to have setbacks feel like they were random or the fault of the player.
“[For] dieting and failing to lose weight, training people to feel more control over the outcome could promote persistence and prevent them from giving up when they face an obstacle.”
Brain scans revealed that different parts of the brain were activated in response to a setback depending on how the failure was perceived: controllable or random.
After a seemingly random setback, a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, linked to emotional regulation, lit up. But after a “controllable” setback, the brain’s ventral striatum lit up, suggesting that the brain processes the undesirable outcome and helps to signal that a change in strategy or behavior is needed.
Ultimately, the player’s belief that he/she was to blame for the failure led to greater persistence.
For situations like dieting and failing to lose weight, training people to feel more control over the outcome could promote persistence and prevent them from giving up when they face an obstacle.
Three other studies by researchers at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, also found that while people might intend to accomplish certain goals, they may not actually get to them because they fail to consider the circumstances that surround them.
In the first study, a telephone survey was taken about tasks participants wished to complete within three months, and on average, two-thirds of participants expected to actually follow through. When they were contacted three months later, it was revealed that fewer than one-third (31%) of participants actually completed the task.
In the second study, university students were asked to complete an online survey that would become available in two weeks. Regardless of whether they were told that completing the survey would simply be helpful or that the researcher could not complete her dissertation without their participation those who had received an email reminder the day the survey opened were more likely to complete the survey.
In the third study, students were enrolled in a program designed to help them save money, and one group was instructed to complete biweekly reports about their progress while the second group was not. Though both groups were equally optimistic about reaching their savings goals, those who completed the progress reports saw more success.
In these studies, the participants were a little too optimistic; they were focusing only on their intentions at the moment and failed to consider potential obstacles that might come up later. When did consider possible barriers, they often downplayed the possible impact.
Instead, setting up reminders and taking control of situational factors was more effective for helping them reach their goals.
The Bottom Line
Let’s face it – this happens all the time! Despite our best intentions, we just don’t accomplish some things we were so certain we would. But situational factors can narrow or widen the gap between intentions and actions.
For example, if you wanted to lose 10 pounds over the next 2 months, signing up for a weight loss program, joining an online community like Spark Fitness or using a calorie counter can change your situational factors to more reliably help you lose those extra pounds.
Speaking of situational factors, changing your environment can have a huge impact on your success. Little things like having snacks and junk food easily accessible or buying in bulk are not-so-obvious-but-obvious influencers that can lead to a loss of self-control. Hide the snacks away, use a smaller plate, use a different colored plate so you can see food quantity more easily, and know all your food options before you make your choice.
Self-control is a tough one, but by distancing and distracting, we can train ourselves. Remember the famous marshmallow tests? If you don’t’, here’s a recap: researchers would give a preschooler one marshmallow. They would then tell the child that he/she could eat the marshmallow now or wait until they returned and receive a second marshmallow. Tracking those children through adulthood showed that the ones with the greatest willpower – the ones who waited the longest – went on to achieve more academic success, cope better with stress, and be thinner, and be less likely to use drugs than the ones who couldn’t wait.