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Mental & Emotional Health

Remembering Self-Control Failures Leads to Repeat Failures

It’s been said that “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” but even if you know your own history, that doesn’t necessarily help you with self-control. New research done at Boston College and  published in August 2015 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology shows the effectiveness of memory in improving our everyday self-control decisions depends on what we recall and how easily it comes to mind.

A release from the college quotes the study’s lead author, Hristina Nikolova, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Marketing in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, as saying, “Despite the common belief that remembering our mistakes will help us make better decisions in the present, we actually find that thinking about our failures at self-control leads us to repeat them and indulge in the present, so it’s not helpful at all.

“For example, people often think that remembering the last time when they didn’t hesitate to enjoy eating the delicious, 2,000 calorie chocolate cake will help them resist the delicious dessert menu and go for some fruits instead. However, our findings reveal that remembering such self-control failures would lead people to indulge again in the present.”

Titled “Haunts or Helps From the Past: Understanding the Effect of Recall on Current Self-Control,” the study is the first of its kind and was conducted by Nikolova, Cait Lamberton, associate professor with the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, and Kelly L. Haws, associate professor with the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University.

In a series of experiments conducted over four years, the authors examine how the content of consumers’ recollections (whether they focus on their past successes or failures at self-control) and the difficulty of their recall (whether they recall few or many such instances) impact their decisions in self-control dilemmas such as money budgeting, time budgeting, and persistence on challenging tasks.

For example, in one of the experiments, participants remembered instances in which they were faced with a spending temptation (e.g., being tempted to splurge on an expensive, but unnecessary item that they really liked) and whether they were able to successfully control their spending behavior (self-control successes) or were not able to do so (self-control failures). Some participants were asked to recall two such instances, while others were instructed to recall ten such behaviors.