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On horses, humans and sugar: Towards a desire-centered view of self-control

Hornyik, Csongor Daniel

Past research demonstrated that following exertion of self-control, people perform worse on subsequent tasks requiring self-control (Baumeister, Vohs & Tice, 2007). Previous research also demonstrated that following a brief sugar-based mouth-rinse this effect is eliminated. According to the currently most widely accepted theory these phenomena are due to a "limited resource" that gets depleted (and replenished) in the course of exerting self-control. Nevertheless, the "resource" is only metaphorical and implied, thus the exact mechanism of the observed self-control deterioration is still unknown. Self-control can be described as a battle between self-control strength and impulse strength (e.g. Schmeichel, Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2010). The present research proposed a need for the shift in focus from the self-control strength towards the impulse strength. More specifically, the current research hypothesized that the intensification of the temptation (strengthening of the competing, momentary desires and weakening of the focal goal) is the mediator of the observed "depletion" effects and the reversal of the same is the mediator of the observed "replenishment" effects. The results provided only partial support to these ideas. Experiment 1 found that the decrease in motivation about the focal goal partially mediated the decline in self-control, in a procrastination experimental paradigm. Experiment 2A found that the decrease in the perceived value of the reimbursement for the focal goal completely mediated the observed sugary-mouth-rinse "replenishment" findings in the unsavory drink paradigm. Experiment 2B found that in the cookie-snacking paradigm the most extreme restrained and non-restrained eaters perceived the cookies as more delicious but restrained eaters consumed fewer cookies, while non-restrained eaters consumed more cookies when "depleted". Altogether, it appears that the role of temptation-strength (desire-intensification and goal de-intensification) is a promising avenue of research in the self-control literature.