Conventional wisdom advises us to be conscious of past mistakes — lest we be doomed to repeat them. This adage might hold true for many things, but according to a new study, self-control issues probably aren’t included. For preventing future lapses in self-control, simply remembering our past failures won’t do any good — though remembering instances where we successfully resisted temptation could be useful.

"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," said the study's lead author, Dr. Hristina Nikolova, an assistant professor of Marketing in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, in a press release.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, was the first of its kind and included experiments conducted over a span of four years. Study authors looked at the specific content participants recalled when asked about past situations in which self-control was a factor, and how the content of their memories influenced possible future behaviors. The dilemmas categorized as self-control issues included time budgeting, money budgeting, and persistence on challenging tasks.

One of the experiments, for example, asked participants to recall times where they faced a spending temptation — wanting to splurge on an unnecessary designer bag, perhaps — and whether or not they were able to resist the temptation (a self-control success) or if they succumbed (self-control failure). Some participants were asked to recall two of these instances, while some were asked to come up with 10.

After this, subjects were instructed to imagine that they were at a shopping mall and indicate how much credit card debt they’d be willing to take on in order to buy something they had wanted for a long time. Results showed that participants who had been asked to recall 10 successes were willing to incur about 21 percent more debt than those who recalled two. The groups of participants that recalled their failures were just as likely to incur as much debt as those who had recalled 10 successes.

Overall, the experiments pointed to one conclusion — consumers more successfully resisted temptation when they could easily reflect on times in the past that they demonstrated self-control.

“For example, when people recall two past successes at self-control (e.g., instances when they resisted spending money on unnecessary items), these instances come to mind easily,” Nikolova said. “It is relatively easy for everyone to think of two such successes. This ease of recall makes people believe that that they are good at self-control, they are the kind of person who can resist temptations, and since people usually want to be consistent with their views of themselves, they restrain again in tempting situations in the present.”

When subjects were asked to come up with 10 successes, however, they experienced difficulty in recalling so many examples. This struggle led them to conclude that they must not be that good at self-control, considering that they couldn’t come up with the required number of examples. This showed that sometimes, remembering less can be more. Somewhat counterintuitively, recalling only a couple past successes helped to restrain participants in the present more than if they were forced to remember more.

Even more unexpectedly, individuals that remembered failed attempts at self-control were likely to repeat them. Researchers found that participants who recalled their self-control failures were likely to indulge regardless of how many occasions they were asked to come up with.

"When we have to think about our failures — that puts us in a negative mood and research has shown that when people are in a negative mood state, they tend to indulge to make themselves feel better," Nikolova said.

This research could benefit real world marketers attempting to design programs and interventions for those struggling with issues like credit card debt and unhealthy eating. Many current campaigns against self-control issues like gambling follow the traditional advice — remember your failures to ensure better behavior in the future.

According to the study, though, this could be undesirable.

"We show that while recalling successes seems like a good idea, in cases when such recall is difficult, this strategy may backfire," the study concluded. "Further, compared to easy recall of successes, recalling failures does little to enhance self-control, despite conventional wisdom that one learns from their past mistakes. In fact, our results instead argue that focusing on one's past mistakes may doom us to repeat them. Given that many factors may lead interventions and help programs to fail, every 'nudge' matters — we hope that identifying this danger of recall may help design more effective programs."

Source: Nikolova H, et al. Haunts or Help From The Past:Understanding The Effect Of Recall On Current Self Control. Journal of Consumer Psychology. 2015.