“If I ate these donuts, I’d feel so ashamed of myself! I better not eat ’em.”
“If I skipped working out today, I’d feel so ashamed of myself! I better get my ass to the gym.”
Can anticipating shame help you stay strong and disciplined?
Vanessa Patrick and her colleagues conducted an experiment to investigate how effective anticipated pride and shame are for self-control. In their first study, 95 participants sat at a desk in front of a large piece of rich chocolate cake. All they had to do was to record their occurring thoughts while they could eat as much or as little cake as they desired. For group 1, the control group, that was all. Group 2 was additionally instructed to anticipate how much shame they’d feel if they ate the cake. And those in group 3 had to anticipate how much pride they’d feel if they resisted eating the cake.
Did anticipating pride or shame influence how much cake people ate?
Yes, it did.
40% of pride-primed subjects completely resisted the cake, but only 10.5% of shame-primed subjects, which was even less than the 18.8% of the control group. Moreover, pride-primed subjects ate significantly less cake, took fewer bites, and ate with more composure, as compared to all the others.
Therefore, imagining pride improved self-control while imagining shame didn’t help at all.
To find out the reason why, the researchers looked at the recorded thoughts that occurred to the subjects while they ate or resisted the cake. Pride-primed subjects not only felt more controlled, they also thought more about themselves and their goals rather than about the cake. By contrast, the others thought mostly about the tempting cake. It thus seemed not to be a matter of the positive vs. negative feelings associated with pride vs. shame, but to be a matter of mental focus: attention on the self vs. attention on the temptation.
To test this hypothesis, a second study had 105 people do the same experiment, with the only difference being that half of them had a mirror in front of them. The mirror served to manipulate attentional focus on the self. For pride-primed subjects, who were already focused on themselves, nothing changed. Shame-primed subjects, however, had significantly higher self-control when they could see themselves in a mirror. In general, those sitting in front of a mirror consumed less cake than those with lower self-focus.
This means that shame is worse for willpower than pride not because it feels bad, but because shame tends to direct your attention to whatever tempts you, while pride makes you focus on yourself.
There are three practical lessons you can take away from this study:
- When you need more self-control, focus on yourself and on your goals.
- When you’re tempted, imagine the pride you’ll feel upon your resistance, not the shame upon failure.
- Put little mirrors at places where you tend to succumb to temptation (for example, on your fridge or on your liquor cabinet).