Saturday, 12 February 2011

Seven ways to be good: 6) Form if-then plans

When your willpower levels have been drained by an earlier test, that’s when you’re most vulnerable to temptation. One way to protect yourself is to form so-called ‘if-then’ plans. For example, imagine that you wanted to avoid getting angry the next time your boss is overly critical, you could form the plan ‘if my boss says my work is amateurish I will recall the time that I won an award’ – a thought which will hopefully have a soothing effect. The effects of so-called ‘implementation intentions’ have been researched in-depth by Peter Gollwitzer at the University of Konstanz. In one recent study he tested students’ ability to persevere with anagram tasks after they’d resisted laughing while watching comedy clips, thus leaving their willpower depleted. Those who followed the vague plan ‘I will find as many solutions as possible’ performed poorly on the anagram tasks as expected. However, willpower depletion had no such adverse effect on students who followed the additional, more detailed plan: ‘...And if I have solved one anagram, then I will immediately start work on the next!’. [For further information, visit Prof Gollwitzer's website where you will find links to many of his articles]

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This post is part of the Research Digest's Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we'll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month's Psychologist magazine.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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