Study Identifies The Most Effective Mental Strategies That People Use To Get Through Aversive Challenges


GettyImages-820872910.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

What strategies do you use to push through a tough challenge, be it a run on a treadmill or a stressful phone call with your boss? Perhaps you remind yourself of what you have to gain from completing the task, or you use distraction, or you think about the bad things that will happen if you give in? For a paper in the European Journal of Personality, a team led by Marie Hennecke at the University of Zurich has conducted what they say is the first ever investigation of these strategies, and others, that people use spontaneously in their everyday lives to “regulate their persistence during aversive activities”.

The researchers’ main interest was to see whether people with strong self-control differ from flakier types by virtue of their use of more effective strategies. In fact, this was not the case – yes, some strategies were more effective than others (offering hope to those of us with weaker willpower that we might benefit from adopting such strategies), but greater use of effective strategies did not explain the persistence of the grittier types, thus suggesting, as the researchers put it, that “… trait self-control and self-regulatory strategies represent separate routes to good self-regulation”.

The researchers started with a pilot study in which they presented hundreds of participants with challenging scenarios (such as completing a treadmill run) and asked them to list any strategies they’d typically use to push through to the end. The researchers collapsed the answers into 19 strategies most of which fell under one of two headings: situation modification strategies (e.g. drinking coffee; listening to music while working); and attentional deployment strategies (e.g. motivational self-talk or thinking the finish is near).

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List of strategies (click to enlarge), from Hennecke et al, 2018

Next, Hennecke’s team ran another pilot study with North American participants and German-speaking participants in which they asked them to complete a measure of their trait self-control and then to indicate how often they used these 19 different strategies (see left). For the study proper, the researchers then used a week-long “experience sampling method” with over 250 young German-speakers – as well as completing the trait self-control quiz, these participants were prompted multiple times a day to log any aversive challenges they’d recently been engaged in (examples included self-study, lectures, commuting and housework), what strategies they’d used to persist, and whether they’d been successful.

Across the different types of aversive challenge, the strategies correlated with success were: thinking about the positive consequences of getting to the end (this was also the most popular strategy); monitoring one’s goal progress; thinking that the end is near (the second most popular strategy); and emotion regulation (e.g. trying to stay in a good mood). In contrast, distracting oneself from the aversive challenge was associated with less success – perhaps because distraction makes us more inclined to give in and do something more pleasant (note the contrast with research on resisting temptations, such as in the classic Marshmallow Test studies, in which distraction was found to be effective).

These new findings are of theoretical interest – for instance, an excessive focus on the potential positive outcomes of challenges has previously been flagged in research as an unhelpful approach because it encourages a dependence on so-called extrinsic motivation. Researchers have previously argued that we are actually more likely to reach our goals if we can find pleasure in the process (intrinsic motivation). Hennecke and her colleagues speculated that perhaps the key factor here is whether the challenge is enjoyable or inherently aversive – if the latter, then perhaps focusing on positive outcomes can be an effective strategy. Further research can test this. Meanwhile, monitoring one’s progress is well-established as an effective self-control strategy; on the other hand, the researchers said the strategy of thinking that the finish is near, while very popular here, has actually not been studied before.

Returning to Hennecke and her colleagues’ main focus – whether people with more self-control use more effective strategies – yes, two of the effective strategies were used more often by participants higher in trait self-control, namely focusing on positive consequences and emotion regulation (as was a third strategy – goal setting – though this strategy was not correlated with greater success). Crucially, however, as I mentioned above, the greater use of these two effective strategies did not explain why these high trait self-control individuals tended to enjoy greater success at aversive challenges. “It is possible that more automatic processes that individuals may not be able to explicitly report are better candidates for explaining individual differences in self-control,” the researchers said.

Limitations of the new findings include the reliance on participants’ own estimates of their success at persistence, and the mostly student sample for the main study (for whom the nature of everyday challenges are likely to be different than for non-students). However, this research clearly breaks new ground. As Hennecke and her colleagues put it, “… our findings promote a more comprehensive understanding of self-regulatory success and failure during people’s daily attempts to regulate their persistence during aversive activities.”

Doing Despite Disliking: Self‐regulatory Strategies in Everyday Aversive Activities

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest