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Finding balance: the psychology of self-control and justifications

Katie Cowart

In a world where immediate gratification often takes precedence, the concept of "treating yourself" has evolved into a call for indulgence and abundance. It's a phrase that frequently evokes images of overpriced lattes, impromptu shopping sprees, and the unceasing pursuit of fleeting pleasures. But is this culture of self-indulgence truly as innocent as it may seem?

Researchers at the University of Georgia published a new paper examining the justifications people use to indulge in temptations. Preliminary results from a study of students at a U.S. university found its roots in the human tendency to find excuses for lapses in self-control. 

“It's remarkable how adaptable individuals are when it comes to providing reasons or excuses for their actions, whether they be good or bad,” said Michelle vanDellen, associate professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of psychology.  “People have all been in situations where almost anything can serve as an excuse for them. This phenomenon led us to investigate how these justifications function and how they contribute to the understanding of the processes involved in pursuing goals.”

Mood and psychological disposition play a pivotal role in the ability to regulate oneself and work towards objectives. This disposition often serves as subtle cue in the background, indicating whether individuals are performing well or not. When a person starts to feel down, that feeling often acts as a signal to get back to work and put in more effort. Conversely, during positive moods, that mood signals that it might be time to relax or take it easy.

The studies delved into the relationship between personal responsibility and mood, and how these factors intertwined to provide justifications. The research team of UGA undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty study found when individuals felt personally responsible for the good day they had, they were more inclined to take breaks and indulge themselves. On the contrary, when people had a bad day and attributed it to external factors, they were more likely to use that as an excuse.

“It's crucial for individuals to exercise self-awareness and not give in to every impulse for a break or indulgence. While breaks are essential, our initial inclinations often lean towards finding justifications or excuses,” said vanDellen. “When individuals feel this pull, it's an opportune moment to pause and ask themselves whether they're truly in need of a break or if it's merely an excuse. It serves as a trigger for self-reflection, helping them align their actions with their long-term goals.”

Identifying moments where individuals might be using justifications to sidestep their long-term goals could lead to greater efficiency in achieving those goals. The path to long-term goal pursuit is arduous, and maintaining commitment over time can be challenging. Being able to recognize these opportunities before they slip away can enhance a person’s chances of success.

“In the broader context, it's vital to understand that navigating through mood and emotions can be complex,” vanDellen said. “Some difficulties are a natural part of life, and learning to cope with them is often more beneficial than trying to escape them. Learning this distinction can be challenging from a psychological perspective, but it can be incredibly helpful for people as they navigate personal goal pursuit and work to maintain mental health.”

To expand on this research, vanDellen is working with students to investigate how these dynamics apply within interpersonal relationships. They're exploring how people handle justifications within their relationships and how they respond when their partners offer justifications, especially when it doesn't align with their expectations. The new study will delve into the complexities of balancing the long-term goal of maintaining a happy relationship with individual desires and justifications, highlighting the intricate web of goals within relationships.

The full study, "Treat yourself: both positive and negative affect can provide justifications for self-regulatory indulgence," was published in the journal Self and Identity.

Image: Students walking on Myers Quad, 2023. Photo by Dorthy Kozlowski



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