Fighting temptations is an ordeal that many of us face each day, and these temptations come in all shapes and sizes. Should I light that cigarette? Would it matter if I dated that other woman? Should I eat a seventh chocolate bar? At the heart of every temptation is the promise of a short-term reward, but what happens when we avoid the possibility of that reward, and thus the temptation altogether?

In a new study, willpower and precommitment were examined in 78 men. Precommitment is the voluntary restriction of access to temptations — for instance, by saving money in an account with high withdrawal rates or by not purchasng savory junk foods that will wreck your diet. Precommitment allows people to realistically anticipate self-control failures and limit access to temptations accordingly. "Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place," said Molly Crockett, Ph.D., senior investigator of this study.

Researchers looked at parts of the brain associated with rewards using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) when participants were offered short-term versus long-term rewards. Rewards offered were erotic images; small rewards were available immediately, or in the short term, and were mildly enjoyable, while large rewards were available after a delay and were immensely enjoyable for the men. The men were either asked to precommit to the reward — avoid temptations, and resist looking at other erotic images available — or exhibit self-control. After a subject chose whether they wanted a small or large reward, their changes in preference to gain their reward were noted.

Researchers found that willpower engages three parts of the brain, while precommitment only engages one part. When one is exercising their willpower, the researchers found that the three portions working were concerned with active thought, predominant or impulsive responses, and self-control. On the other hand, during precommitment, only one part of the brain, involved in thinking about the future, is active. This indicates that those who precommit are likely to succeed because all they are concerned with is their future reward, and impulsive decisions about that reward are less likely. And meanwhile, those hoping to exert willpower were found to actively think about the reward they want, preventing themselves from giving into temptation and vigorously controlling themselves in order to get their reward.

Furthermore, researchers found that precommitment was a more effective self-control strategy, overall, than willpower. Participants were more likely to get the large reward when they had the opportunity to precommit. Often, when those asking for a large reward offered to exert willpower, they would change their minds and accept the small reward during the delay period. They also found that impulsive people, with the weak willpower, benefited the most from precommitment, as they were able to identify their goals and completely avoid temptation.

This study has found a promising way to motivate ourselves to reach seemingly impossible goals. Issues with self-control plague all of us daily, causing us to overeat, overspend, and procrastinate. However, with this new finding regarding precommitment, we can confidently set goals and strategize how to meet them, by simply avoiding what will set us off course.

Source: Crockett MJ, Braams BR, Clark L, Tobler PN, Robbins TW, Kalenscher T. Restricting Temptations: Neural Mechanisms of Precommitment. Neuron. 2013.