Self-Reliance Isn’t a Superpower, It’s a Vice

New Year’s resolutions heading off the rails? Ask for help.

Juan Pablo Bermúdez
5 min readJan 15, 2020


Getty Images / hobo_018

Co-authored with Samuel Murray.

IIt’s easy to imagine ways to self-improve — and formulate innumerable New Year’s resolutions to get us there. But the self-control part of it is harder. Self-control is a scarce resource for many of us, which often means we don’t quite achieve what we originally dreamed. And come March, a lot of us are back into our old ruts.

So how can we break this cycle?

One way to start is to change the way we think about self-control.

We are part of a team of philosophers and psychologists from Duke University, University of Pittsburgh, and the Universidad Externado de Colombia in Bogotá who recently studied people’s beliefs about self-control and the value of different kinds of self-control. We found that people are biased toward purely self-reliant forms of self-control, such as exercising willpower or directly inhibiting impulses. Using an online survey platform, we provided a fictional story to 147 anonymous participants (mostly female, average age was 31 years old) about students who need to study for a test, but are tempted to go out and party with friends. People were inclined to attribute more self-control to the fictional character who resisted temptation through sheer willpower rather than to the fictional character who shut off their phone to avoid messages about going out.

In a follow-up survey study with 149 different participants (nearly evenly split between females and males, average age was 32 years old), we provided people with fictional scenarios where someone must manage temptation. Participants were asked to generate several different strategies for managing temptation and instructed to rate the effectiveness of these different strategies. After coming up with strategies, we asked participants to pick the one they would advise the fictional character to follow. We found that people most often recommended self-reliant exercises of self-control as ways to resist temptation — more so than getting support from friends or modifying one’s environment.

Communal dependence, rather than self-reliance, is what succeeds.

This isn’t surprising. We live in a society that prides itself on self-reliance. Ralph Waldo Emerson captures this most American of sentiments, writing: “Unless we overtake ourselves, circumstances will overtake us.” However, nearly a decade of research on the psychology of self-control contradicts this oft-delivered wisdom celebrating self-reliance.

For starters, people are substantially more likely to break an addiction when they enlist community support. People are also more likely to stick to an exercise program for longer when they are part of an online support group. And many 12-step self-help programs are organized around principles of situation management rather than building willpower. Communal dependence, rather than self-reliance, is what succeeds.

The science behind this is subtle, but it helps to recast the allure of self-reliance. What breaks a resolution is a strong temptation. We need willpower to fight temptation and stick to our resolutions. But an even better solution is to position yourself so that you feel less temptation in the first place. That means putting yourself in situations where you’re unlikely to feel the pull of giving up on your resolution, and relying on others to support you when you falter.

With that in mind, here are five science-backed strategies you can use to build communal dependence and harness the power of your environment:

  1. Earlier is always better: The earlier you can target temptation, the better. Understand what situations are likely to make you feel tempted and come up with a plan to avoid those situations. Tell your friends as well, so that they can suggest alternative activities that will help you avoid tempting situations.
  2. Tie yourself to the mast: This suggestion comes from Homer’s Odyssey. At one point, Odysseus must navigate his ship past the sirens, a group of magical people who lure sailors into dangerous waters with enchanting melodies. To get through, Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of the ship so that he cannot jump overboard. This illustrates the power of modifying a situation to improve self-control by making it harder to act on temptation. Want to cut down on social media time? Try unplugging your Wi-Fi router for a few hours, or use a social media blocking app. Want to save more money? Enroll in an automatic deposit. The goal is to make the environment do some of the work for you.
  3. Formulate a very concrete idea of your goal: Sometimes, the pull of temptation is strong and it’s not easy to get away or change the situation. In this case, it’s helpful to focus your attention on what you want to achieve. But don’t just focus on it generally: Be very specific. State what you will do, when you will do it, and with whom. Specifying the details of what you will do makes it more likely that you succeed. Then, in the heat of the moment, picturing your achievement will improve self-control.
  4. Plan for distraction: Temptation is considerably weaker when you can focus on something else. Find a few friends who you could call for a distracting conversation whenever you feel temptation. Or, pick a hobby that you can practice for the sake of distraction. Try to use the environment to pull your attention away from whatever is tempting you.
  5. Use your imagination: Sometimes you can improve self-control with a little self-deception. Feeling sick of the exercise bike? Think of it as an opportunity to listen to some new music. Craving a cigarette? Think of how your clothes will stink afterward. If you want to start doing something, picture it as an attractive activity. If you want to stop doing something, focus on its disagreeable features.

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy guaranteed to work every time. The experience of giving something up (like smoking) is different from the experience of trying to stick to something (like training for a marathon). No matter what, planning to change will most likely generate temptation at some point. When that happens, these rules of thumb can help keep you on track.

Most important, get others involved. Having an ally who understands your goals and wants you to achieve them drastically improves self-control. Even enlisting the support of strangers (through online forums or groups) provides a boost. You’re not alone in trying to do better this year! Finding the right crew of like-minded people will take you a long way on the path to a better you.

There’s a myth that self-improvement and self-control work only when they come entirely from within. But the scientific study of self-control shows that it’s not just what’s inside that counts. Sometimes dependence is a virtue.



Juan Pablo Bermúdez

Philosopher and cognitive scientist working on agency, self-control, and moral psychology. Neuchâtel U. & Externado U.