Willpower Traps: Stop Giving in to Temptation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you find yourself giving in to temptation too easily? What are the four traps that undermine willpower?

There are four main traps that undermine willpower: the “I’m-making-progress” trap, the too-much optimism trap, the halo trap, and the moral licensing trap.

Learn about the four types of willpower traps and how to stop giving in to temptation.

Avoid These 4 Willpower Traps

Most people think of willpower as a virtue, an admirable trait that we strive for but don’t always achieve. But science tells a different story. Willpower—the ability to exercise self-control when you need it—is an instinct that’s wired into our brains. 

Yet it seems like willpower vanishes at crucial moments and we end up giving in to temptation. To harness your innate willpower, you need to understand what factors make you give up your self-control. In The Willpower Instinct, Stanford University psychology professor Kelly McGonigal details how our natural willpower gets compromised. Here are the top four willpower traps.

1. The “I’m-Making-Progress” Trap  

By definition, a willpower challenge involves two competing interests: Your long-term goals versus your short-term impulses. When your willpower is firing on all four cylinders, you’ll act in the interest of your long-term goals. But after making a certain amount of progress, you might feel a little too proud of yourself and decide to give yourself a break. 

Example: If you want to start your own at-home business, you might spend two days setting up a home office. You feel empowered by this achievement—look at how much you’ve accomplished!—so now you binge-watch your favorite show instead of working on your business plan. Even writing a to-do list can backfire on you—you may feel so much relief at having transcribed all your tasks into one list that you don’t actually do any of them. 

Instead of patting yourself on the back for your perceived progress, you need to use that progress as motivation. Examine your achievements so far—setting up that office, writing that to-do list—and realize they’re evidence of how much your goals matter to you. That should motivate you to forge ahead, not take a break. 

Start paying attention to times when you give yourself permission to procrastinate, or when you use good behavior to justify self-indulgence. The key question is not “How much progress have I made toward my goal?” The key question is “How committed am I toward my goal?” If you focus on commitment instead of progress, you’ll keep the progress going. 

2. The Too-Much-Optimism Trap 

In addition to giving ourselves credit for past behavior, we also tend to give ourselves credit for future behavior—which is even less logical. For example, if we tell ourselves we are going to exercise after work, we may grant ourselves a calorie-rich lunch. We reward ourselves on the mere potential of future good behavior.  

This is the optimism trap. We tell ourselves little white lies: “I’ll spend money at the mall today, but I won’t go shopping for the next two weeks,” or “I’ll eat this dessert today, but there will be no more dessert for the next month.” 

The research: Psychologists were intrigued by the idea that when McDonald’s added several healthy-eating options to its menu, sales of Big Macs went through the roof. Studies showed that consumers’ brains got a cheap thrill just knowing that they had the potential to act on their goal of eating healthier—even though they didn’t follow through with it. By telling themselves they would order a salad as soon as they got to McDonald’s, their brains received all the pleasure signals of believing they were satisfying their long-term goals. With that out of the way, they were free to satisfy more immediate impulses for juicy burgers and greasy fries.  

Why is this type of self-deception so rampant? One hypothesis is that consumers were confident that the next time they visited McDonald’s, they would order the healthy options, so it was fine to go with the unhealthy choices this time. 

You might think that you would never be this foolish in your decision-making, but when these studies were replicated, the subjects who believed they had the most self-control were those who consistently ordered the menu’s most unhealthy foods. 

Willpower Hack: See the Future as Just Like Today 

Part of the reason we can deceive ourselves this way is because we wrongly predict that our circumstances will be different in the future than they are today. We can’t fathom that most likely tomorrow will be a lot like today—with the same impulses, desires, and temptations.  

Instead of paying yourself today for the work you will supposedly do tomorrow, create a future-based framework for yourself that actually serves your long-term goals.

If your Personal Willpower Challenge is to give up candy bars, reframe the way you think of candy bars in the present and future. Don’t ask: “Should I have a candy bar this afternoon?” Instead ask: “Should I have a candy bar every afternoon for the next month?” 

Similarly, if your challenge is to have better work habits, don’t ask: “Should I watch Netflix this afternoon instead of working on that project?” Instead ask: “Should I watch Netflix every afternoon for the next year?” 

Example: Jeff wants to be a vegetarian but he loves eating meat and can’t seem to stop himself. At some meals, he eats nothing but vegetables, but at the next meal, he’s chomping down on a burger. He’s especially prone to eating a burger at lunchtime, but then telling himself he’ll make up for it by having only broccoli for dinner. 

To combat this behavior, Jeff develops a framework that eliminates his ability to reward himself for future behavior: He eats only vegetarian food until 6 p.m. Then he eats whatever he wants for dinner—meat or no meat. His plan is non-negotiable. The “reward” of meat has to come after an entire day of eating no meat. And the plan has a catch: If Jeff breaks his own rule by eating meat at lunchtime, he has to break it every day for the rest of the week. 

Even if Jeff is tempted by a meat entree at lunch, the prospect of having to break his diet plan for the entire next week seems too depressing. The plan works: He decides to wait until dinner for that cheese-steak sandwich. 

3. The Halo Trap: Good Doesn’t Cancel Out Bad 

We tend to see our “virtuous” choices as canceling out our “bad” choices. Think of the classic fast-food restaurant order: double cheeseburger, fries, and a diet soda. We’ve all heard the words that often accompany that order: “Oh, no milkshake for me. I’m on a diet.”  

The research: Researchers have found that if you put a cheeseburger and a salad in front of someone, they’ll think that meal has fewer calories than a cheeseburger alone. This is known as the halo effect—when something that seems “virtuous” is paired with something that doesn’t, somehow the combination still seems virtuous. 

The halo effect explains why people who shop for others at Christmastime almost always buy a few things for themselves. And it’s also why people who buy chocolate to support a charity feel perfectly justified eating that chocolate, even if they wouldn’t normally buy and eat chocolate.  

Marketers are keen on the halo effect. They make liberal use of virtuous-sounding words and phrases like “organic” or “all natural” or “good for the planet” to make people more inclined to buy. 

Example: In 1992, a company called SnackWells produced hugely popular fat-free cookies. They were loaded with sugar and calories, but not fat—and people somehow thought the virtue of being fat-free canceled out everything else. Not surprisingly, people gained weight eating these cookies. This phenomenon came to be named “SnackWell Syndrome.” 

4. The Moral Licensing Trap 

Moral licensing is a way of telling ourselves that being “good” gives us moral permission to be “bad.” Sometimes if we just convince ourselves that we’re making progress toward our Personal Willpower Challenge, we’ll fall off the wagon. We take a few steps in the right direction—for example, we might stop smoking or drinking alcohol for several days—and then we tell ourselves we deserve a little “treat.” But by choosing indulgence as a reward for good behavior, we’re actually sabotaging what we really want—our bigger, long-term goal. 

The research: It seems illogical, but many of us indulge in this kind of fuzzy thinking. Studies have shown that when people merely considered donating money to charity—without actually doing it—it made them more likely to buy something for themselves. Chronic dieters often find that exercise actually derails their diet programs because after they work out for an hour, they believe they deserve a food reward. 

The research: When subjects in studies are asked to talk about a recent time when they resisted temptation, they will describe an incident of “good behavior.” When they finish talking, researchers give them the opportunity to indulge in something that’s contrary to their long-term goals. They typically seize the opportunity, and researchers believe it’s because they’re feeling good about themselves. Describing their “good behavior” leads them toward moral licensing. 

But when subjects are asked to describe why they recently resisted temptation, they don’t usually follow up their response by indulging. Remembering the “why” is key to self-control. People remember they resisted the temptation because they wanted to—and that makes them continue to want to.  

Willpower Traps: Stop Giving in to Temptation

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Willpower Instinct summary:

  • That willpower isn't a character trait but rather an innate instinct that's wired into our brains
  • How marketers can use "neuromarketing" to influence you to purchase more
  • How you can harness your innate willpower to achieve your goals

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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