Behavioral scientists frequently interpret such behavior as evidence of a conflict between two ‘selves’ of a person – a Planner (in charge of self-control) and a Doer (who responds spontaneously to the temptations of the moment).
A team of researchers from the Universities of East Anglia (UEA), Warwick, Cardiff, and Lancaster in the UK and Passau in Germany investigated how far people identify with their Planners and their Doers.
They found that while participants differed in the relative importance they attached to spontaneity and self-control, overall, attitudes in favor of spontaneity were almost as common as attitudes in favor of self-control.
Public policies designed to ‘nudge’ people towards healthy lifestyles are often justified because people think of their Planners as their true selves and disown the actions of their Doers.
However, in the new study researchers argue this justification overlooks the possibility that people value spontaneity as well as self-control, and approve of their flexible attitudes to resolutions.
Robert Sugden, a professor of economics at UEA, said: “Our key message is not about whether nudges towards healthy lifestyles are good for people’s long-term health or happiness. It is about whether such nudges can be justified because they help individuals to overcome what they acknowledge as self-control problems”.
If that idea is to be used as a guiding principle for public policy, we need to be assured that individuals want to be helped in this way. Our findings suggest that people often may not want this.
New research findings point to the importance of treating desires for spontaneity as equally deserving of attention as desires for self-control, and as suggesting interesting lines of further research.
The experiment began by asking each of the 240 participants to recall and write about a particular type of the previous episode in their life.
For some, this was a memorable meal when they had particularly enjoyed the food; for others, it was an effort they had made that was good for their health and they felt satisfied with. They were then asked to say how well they recognized themselves in various statements.
These included wishes for more self-control (eg, ‘I wish I took more exercise’), regret about lapses of self-control (‘After ordering desserts in restaurants, I often feel regret’), and approval of self-control as a life strategy (‘In life, it’s important to be able to resist the temptation’).
An equal number of statements expressed wishes for less self-control (eg, ‘I wish there was less social pressure to take exercise’), regret about exercising self-control (‘After ordering a healthy dish, I often wish I’d chosen something tastier’), and approval of spontaneity (‘Having occasional treats is an important source of happiness for me, even if they are bad for my health’).
Overall, respondents recognised themselves almost as often in statements favouring spontaneity as in statements favouring self-control.
In responding to statements about what was important in life, most participants maintained both that it was important to make long-term plans and stick to them and that there was no harm in occasionally taking small enjoyments rather than sticking to those plans. Surprisingly, attitudes were not significantly affected by the type of episode respondents had recalled.