Our capacity for self-control may be running on empty.
Every day, we pressure ourselves to control our impulses-to work harder rather than go home early; to avoid sugar, carbohydrates, and transfats; to save instead of spend; and to exercise courtesy rather than snap at the barista who flubbed our espresso order. Meanwhile, we can’t ride the subway, turn on the TV, or open a magazine without finding an ad urging us to self-indulge. Balancing these two competing forces sometimes seems impossible. A new report from two Canadian researchers suggests why: Our capacity for self-control is far shallower than we realize.
“People have a limited amount of self-control, and tasks requiring controlled, willful action quickly deplete this central resource. Exerting selfcontrol on one task impairs performance on subsequent tasks requiring the same resource,” write Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer N. Gutsell in their article in the journal Psychological Science.
In their experiment, Inzlicht and Gutsell separated 40 individuals into two groups. All were fitted with EEG monitoring equipment and made to watch a disturbing wildlife documentary. One group was asked not to display any emotion in response to the gruesome subject matter; the other group was instructed simply to watch the footage and not proscribed a reaction. Afterwards, both groups completed a rapid-fire colormatching test requiring a controlled response. The test showed that people who had suppressed their reaction to the documentary (measurable via the EEG readout) performed less well on the color-matching test.
According to the authors, the study “suggests a neuroscientifically informed account of how self-control is constrained by previous acts of control [and] that mental fatigue can occur relatively quickly and affect tasks unrelated to the depleting activity.” In other words, exercising control on one task makes it harder to exercise control on the task immediately following.
Though we have a shallow and finite reserve of willpower, self-control can improve over time, much like a muscle can be trained. The trick is knowing how to train your will. Simply slowing down and thinking clearly about an impulse (rather than reflexively giving in or denying it) can build self-control, says Inzlicht.
Setting specific self-control goals also works the control muscle. Cordelia Fine, author of A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (Icon, 2005), suggests that exerting self-control in one area, though it depletes willpower in the short term, can help the brain build up willpower over time. “What psychologists are already beginning to see are ways in which the mind gradually takes on a preconscious gatekeeping role to keep tempting thoughts and ideas out of consciousness- a form of willpower-lite,” she says.
Focusing your willpower on a specific objective-like not ordering red meat off the menu-rather than trying to fight every impulse you’re faced with over the course of a day increases your chances of eventually being able to conquer the temptations one at a time. This, in turn, will help you develop the mental tools to accomplish more goals.
Ego also plays a significant role in whether we surrender to-or resist- tempting urges. We often associate giving in to impulses with a relaxed state of mind, but people who are anxious because they constantly feel like social outcasts will have a more difficult time resisting temptation than those who feel comfortable in their social surroundings.
“Coping with a stigmatized social identity” exhausts willpower, says Inzlicht. People who feel stigmatized are more likely to indulge in socially inappropriate behavior, which can further increase their sense of alienation.
Fine hopes that research papers like Inzlicht and Gutsell’s will encourage people to explore how the environments we construct can sap our will in the way they make us feel.
“The philosopher Neil Levy has recently argued that so long as we continue to focus on how to build up our internal resources, we will overlook the equally-if not more-important issue of how to structure our surroundings in order to bolster selfcontrol,” says Fine. “Research shows that ego-depleted participants are more likely to make impulse buys, to spend more, and to eat more unhealthy snacks that they’d rather not have eaten. We can struggle to find ways to harden the moral sinew- but perhaps we should be thinking, too, about the contribution of our willpower-draining surroundings to our failures of self-control.”
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2008.