Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Seeing is for Self-Control: Motivated Perceptual Processes Aid Temptation Resistance
by Cole, Shana, Ph.D., New York University, 2014, 134; 3665126
Abstract (Summary)

As people work toward achieving goals, they often encounter temptations that threaten to throw them off course. How do people resolve the conflicts that arise when their immediate desires are at odds with their long-term goals? A great deal of research focuses on cognitive processes that aid self-control, exploring mechanisms and strategies related to how people think about, judge, and evaluate temptations. My dissertation instead tests perceptual routes to self-control. I explore biases that occur as people perceive and interpret visual information during conflicts. I ask whether people who are able to successfully resolve self-control conflicts not only think about the world in goal-promoting ways, but perceive it in goal-promoting ways as well.

In two lines of research, I explored two perceptual biases–perceptual downgrading and distancing–that arise during self-control conflicts to help people manage threats to their long-term goals. In the first set of studies, I explored motivated perceptual processes within romantic self-control conflicts. I tested whether people perceptually downgrade attractive others who represent a potential threat to their relationship goals. Compared to single individuals, people in relationships perceived attractive, available others as less physically attractive. This occurred to the greatest extent among people who were strongly committed to and satisfied with their current relationships. The results from this line of work suggest people who are highly motivated to protect their long-term romantic relationship goals from temptations exhibit a perceptual self-control strategy that helps to weaken the temptation.

In the second set of studies, I explored motivated perceptual processes within dieting self-control conflicts. In three studies, I tested whether people with strong dieting goals perceived threatening unhealthy foods as perceptually distant. Compared to unrestrained eaters, people with goals to restrict their unhealthy food intake saw snack foods as further away. This was especially likely to occur among people who were successful at managing their dieting goals. Moreover, perceived distance affected people's evaluations of and their subsequent motivations to pursue a temptation. Snacks that were further away were rated as less appealing and, as a result, participants were less likely to want to eat them. The results from this second line of work suggest successful resolution of dieting self-control conflicts may be aided by perceptual distancing, a self-control process that decreases people's motivation to give in to tempting snack foods.

Across the studies, I find evidence for perceptual biases that arise during self-control conflicts and suggest functional links between these perceptual biases and behavioral efforts to resist temptations. In the final chapter, I discuss the theoretical and applied import of incorporating motivated perceptual processes into models of self-control, argue for the unique role perceptual biases play in the self-regulatory process, pose open questions and put forth testable hypotheses for future research to explore, and lay the foundation for a broader theory of motivated perceptual processes across multiple stages of goal pursuit.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Balcetis, Emily
Commitee: Alter, Adam, Fujita, Kentaro, Higgins, E. Tory, Knowles, Eric, Trope, Yaacov
School: New York University
Department: Psychology
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-B 76/04(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Social psychology
Keywords: Motivation, Perception, Self-control, Self-regulation, Temptation
Publication Number: 3665126
ISBN: 978-1-321-37429-2
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