If you are trying to lose weight new
research suggests avoiding temptation may increase your chances of success
compared to relying on willpower alone. The study on self-control by
researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Dusseldorf was published in
the journal Neuron.
The researchers compared the effectiveness of willpower
versus voluntarily restricting access to temptations, called 'precommitment'.
(Examples of precommitment include avoiding purchasing unhealthy food and
putting money in savings accounts with hefty withdrawal fees.) They also
examined the mechanisms in the brain that play a role in precommitment to
better understand why it is so effective.
Molly Crockett, who undertook the research while at the
University of Cambridge and is currently a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral
Fellow at UCL, said: "Our research suggests that the most effective way to
beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place."
How the study was
For the study, the researchers recruited healthy male
volunteers and gave them a series of choices: they had to decide between a
tempting "small reward" available immediately, or a "large
reward" available after a delay. Small rewards were mildly enjoyable
erotic pictures and large rewards were extremely enjoyable erotic pictures.
Since erotic pictures are immediately rewarding at the time
of viewing, the researchers were able to probe the mechanisms of self-control
as they unfolded in real-time. (The scientists could not use money, for
example, since subjects could only reap the rewards of money once they left the
For some of the choices, the small reward was continuously
available, and subjects had to exert willpower to resist choosing it until the
large reward became available. But for other choices, subjects were given the
opportunity to precommit: before the tempting option became available, they had
the ability to prevent themselves from ever encountering the temptation.
The scientists measured people's choices and brain activity
as they made these decisions. They found that precommitment was a more
effective self-control strategy than willpower – subjects were more likely to
get the large reward when they had the opportunity to precommit. They also
found that the most impulsive people (those with the weakest willpower)
benefited the most from precommitment.
The scientists were also able to identify the regions of the
brain that play a role in willpower and precommitment. They found that
precommitment specifically activates the frontopolar cortex, a region that is
involved in thinking about the future. Additionally, when the frontopolar
cortex is engaged during precommitment, it increases its communication with a
region that plays an important role in willpower, the dorsolateral prefrontal
cortex. By identifying the brain networks involved in willpower and
precommitment, the research opens new avenues for understanding failures of
Tobias Kalenscher, co-author on the paper from University of
Dusseldorf, said: "The brain data is exciting because it hints at a
mechanism for how precommitment works: thinking about the future may engage
frontopolar regions, which by virtue of their connections with the dorsolateral
prefrontal cortex are able to guide behaviour toward precommitment."