There may be multiple paths — and wayside helpers — to overcome pornography addiction, stop smoking, quit swearing, lose weight, bring up grades or tackle other personal issues, some vexing and others truly problematic.

But people who gut their way past temptation using willpower instead of external tools or strategies are seen as more trustworthy, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association. That, despite the fact that vast industries have emerged for helping people deploy tools — many of them very effective — to overcome challenges and reach goals.

Think swear jars, nicotine patches and internet blockers, among myriad other types of assistance.

The study, “Going beyond the self in self-control: Interpersonal consequences of commitment strategies,” published Thursday in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found people give worthiness props to those who successfully resist temptation on their own.

The finding didn’t surprise study co-authors Ariella Kristal, of Columbia University, or Julian Zlatev, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, though it did discourage them. They’re not convinced most people have it right.

Since strategies often help, distrust for those using them is a problem deserving more research, they said. If the goal is to overcome temptation or bad habits and otherwise change behaviors, whatever’s effective should be welcome. “We’re not the first to show that people don’t typically use commitment tools at the rate that they maybe should be using them, given their usefulness,” Zlatev told Deseret News. “So it was less surprising and more discouraging that these strategies that we know can be helpful are seen by others as saying something negative about the user.”

Kristal figures that Odysseus made a wise move when he strapped himself to the mast, instead of trying to will himself not to be drawn by the call of the sirens. “The knowledge that people can use external ‘commitment strategies’ to overcome self-control problems has existed in some form for thousands of years,” she said in background material on the study. “Since at least the time of Homer and Odysseus, the focus has primarily been on the efficacy of these strategies for the person choosing to engage in them.”

Commitment strategies are also something Kristal values, she told Deseret News, noting that “I live my life structured by (them). I find them incredibly helpful for being productive and living a good life.” In graduate school, she often scheduled meetings at 9 a.m. to make sure she woke up at a reasonable time and got started on her day. “I love these strategies, but sometimes people respond by saying, ‘Well, why couldn’t you just do it on your own?’”

Testing barriers to getting help

While convinced that external help — what they call commitment strategies — work, the two weren’t sure how other people react to those who use them. “I thought, given the reactions of my family and friends, that perhaps these reputational consequences might be preventing people from using these effective strategies and in part, that’s what this research is showing,” Kristal said by email.

So Kristal and Zlatev conducted a number of online experiments involving more than 2,800 U.S. participants to find out. In one, participants rated the integrity of hypothetical individuals who chose different paths to avoid unwanted behavior like excessive drinking or eating junk food. One used willpower, the other paid $5 each time he gave in. In another, one used willpower to avoid distracting websites, while the other got help from an app.

Zlatev said they only presented people who had set a goal and were working on it. “It may be the case that trying to make a change at all is already seen as valuable by others and is probably respected by itself. But contingent on that decision to set a goal, the way you go about it does seem to have an additional influence on people’s perception of you,” he said.

Even when the person passing judgment recognized that the external help was more effective than simply trying to tough it out and conquer an issue, study participants deemed those presented in the experiments using commitment strategies less trustworthy. The researchers also learned that if the people tackling a temptation thought others would find out, they were less likely to choose an external commitment strategy.

Did the degree vary depending on how hard the task to be overcome was? Not much, Kristal said.

“While the effect sizes are different, we do find consistently that people think those who use commitment strategies in each of those domains — for example, saving money, going to the gym, reducing alcohol consumption and eating healthy — are seen as having less integrity than people who use willpower to achieve the same goal.”

Who will find out?

They did find that “if people know you’re exerting a lot of effort to achieve your goal, they are less likely to think you have less integrity for using a commitment strategy,” she said.

Zlatev was surprised that people were also reluctant to use external help even when they were told no one would find out, though they were more reluctant if they thought others would know. “This suggests that there are additional barriers to uptake of these tools beyond what we have in this paper,” he said.

He believes that mapping out the various reasons people don’t use helpful tools could lead to the design of better programs and systems that let people achieve their goals more effectively.

“We found similar results across a variety of different goals and commitment strategies,” said Zlatev by email. “I think the key is that all of these contexts involve a desire to achieve a specific goal like stopping smoking which can be done with or without outside help. And people seem to hold the ‘brute force’ method of using willpower in higher regard when it comes to trying to achieve these goals.”

Both Kristal and Zlatev think that when someone chooses to get past a problem with some kind of outside help, others see a character deficiency: Perhaps they failed in the past and are thus less capable of accomplishing their goal on their own, the thinking goes. “Past failures of self-control can be seen by others as moral failures,” Kristal said. “Because morality is an important component of integrity in particular and trustworthiness more broadly, people who rely on commitment strategies may be viewed as less trustworthy than those who simply use willpower.”