Monday, 18 April 2016

Good news! Planning naughty lapses can help you achieve your goals

It's OK: I planned this! 
There's a school of thought that says if you want to reach your goals, your commitment must be total. To save more money, you must never go on a splurge. To lose weight, you must never indulge. But this path is joyless and risky, say the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. If you follow the total approach, then one lapse and you fee like a failure, your motivation dips and before you know it, your goal is in tatters. Much better, they say, to schedule opportunities to be naughty – what they call  "planned hedonic deviations". This helps you feel in control, makes the whole process more fun, and keeps your morale and motivation flying high. Ultimately, these researchers say, you'll be more likely to succeed.

To test their ideas, Rita Coelho do Vale and her colleagues first asked 59 students to role-play being on a diet. Half were on a traditional diet that involved restricting themselves to 1500 calories every day, the other half were on an "intermittent diet" – they had to restrict their intake to 1300 calories six days a week, but every seventh day, they could relax and enjoy 2700 calories.

For the role-play, the students went through the process of picking their hypothetical meals from a menu each day and at the end of the process said how much self-control they thought they'd have left. They also had to imagine being confronted with a snack aisle at the end of the week, and suggest ways they would resist the temptation. The key finding here is that, at the end of the imaginary week, the students on the diet with one planned naughty day per week said that they felt like would have more self-control left, and they also managed to come up with more strategies to avoid the end-of-week temptation.

More convincing, a second study involved 36 participants actually dieting for two weeks, keeping diaries of their experience and coming in to the lab to be weighed. Those who were on the diet with one planned naughty day per week managed to sustain stronger feelings of self-control across the dieting period, they found the whole experience more enjoyable and they reported more sustained motivation. They also lost just as much weight as the other participants who were on a traditional diet with no planned naughty days.

Finally, the researchers surveyed 64 people who said they were currently striving for a goal, such as a healthier habit or saving money. Some were told about a typical goal plan that involved totally committing to the plan with no lapses, the others were told about a plan that involved scheduled breaks: an occasional chance to engage at set times in a behaviour inconsistent with the goal. People who read about the latter type of plan reported feeling more motivated and thought the plan would be more helpful.

The researchers said their findings support a "straightforward and new technique for effective self-management". They continued: "This is new, and it points to the importance of flexibility in goal pursuit."


Coelho do Vale, R., Pieters, R., & Zeelenberg, M. (2016). The benefits of behaving badly on occasion: Successful regulation by planned hedonic deviations Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26 (1), 17-28 DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2015.05.001

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

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