Jordan Bridges, a doctoral student in the Rutgers Department of Philosophy, co-authored a paper in the journal Cognition explaining why this distinction is important to the study of self-control and how only humans perceive the power of willpower.
Researchers have long wondered what tools people successfully use to resist temptations — like eating another potato chip or checking Facebook one more time before bed. While no one knows why some of us have more self-control than others, psychologists and behavioral economists know a lot about the methods people use to resist temptation.
Bridges calls a method diachronic regulation, which involves choosing and modifying one’s situation and developing habits over time to avoid temptation — essentially removing willpower from the equation. The second mechanism, synchronic regulation, relies on deliberate, effortful willpower to resist temptation.
Psychologists and economists argue that because willpower is harder to exercise, diachronic regulation is more effective than synchronic regulation. This conclusion rests in part on the failure of willpower-driven campaigns (such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, which had no effect on youth tobacco, alcohol, or drug use).
But Bridges and her colleagues hypothesize that such predictions of synchronic control are based on a misinterpretation of the data, that examples of effective purely diachronic strategies involve the use of willpower to execute, and that a popular or “folk” view of willpower is just as important.
“We theorized that willpower is necessary to implement temptation-avoidance strategies,” Bridges said.
Using a multifactorial research design, the researchers sought to cross-reference cases of self-regulation to test how individuals view synchronic and diachronic regulation as separate entities. In four experiments, participants were asked to read a short story about a character named Mo — in which he uses various self-control strategies to avoid drinking coffee, eating junk food, using social media, and socializing — and then rate his level of self-esteem. control
What they found was that when synchronic and diachronic forms of regulation were separated, participants considered only willpower as self-regulating; Pure diachronic strategies did not. And in mixed cases involving both types of control, when participants rated cases involving the exercise of self-control, they did so only because they had concurrent control, not the more behavioral framework of temptation avoidance.
Bridges says the findings are important for the study of self-regulation and for how psychologists, philosophers, economists and clinical practitioners discuss these concepts.
“Scientific discussion and science communication often involve discussions of terms that don’t track how we typically use them,” Bridges said. “If we care about successfully communicating scientific results, we must speak in terms that people understand.”
She added: “Indeed, people often assume that self-regulation is the diachronic strategy that does the work, when moments of synchronic regulation are being amplified with diachronic strategy. Understanding the role of willpower in self-regulation has implications for the way we talk about helping people break habits.