Hanging around saloons or chocolatiers or raves or racetracks—name your poison—just increases the odds that your self-control will fail you someday. But is this true? Does the mere availability of something tempting weaken the will to resist? The answer is of more than theoretical interest to public health experts, and the problem goes far beyond serious addictive disorders. Just think of all those Christmas cookies in your office recently.
As our national obesity crisis shows, difficulties with discipline and self-control are widespread and harmful. Although it seems intuitively obvious that one should not keep bonbons in every room of the house, psychological theory argues the opposite. Three psychologists recently decided to test a paradoxical view of self-control based on the scarcity principle. They further speculated that this happens because availability of sweets is threatening to the loftier goal of good health, and so causes the mind to damp down desire to protect the greater good.
In short, by making a tempting sweet readily available, we make it less tempting. They stood at the exit door of a gym and buttonholed young women as they were leaving. They offered them a choice of power bars or chocolates, and had them rate their desire for each. Some rated their desire before choosing, and others right after—but before eating. The idea was to compare desire for chocolate when it was readily available, and when it was made unavailable. The psychologists figured that young women at a gym would tend to be health conscious—and thus conflicted over the choice.
They found that the women did indeed prefer the healthy power bars—that is, they devalued the chocolates; but this preference disappeared as soon as they made their choice, and the unhealthy temptation was no longer an option. The participants were 6 men and 18 women, ages After two months of treatment these people were:.
These participants were given free memberships to a gym and encouraged to use it. With such a small number of participants, it would be worthwhile for other researchers to continue this study and compare results. Regardless, you may be wondering: how much exercise do I need to do for results?
Since the moment we wake up until we go to sleep, we are constantly using our willpower. A growing body of research proves that resisting temptations takes a toll on us mentally. Some were asked to try out the cookies and others were asked to eat the radishes. After this, they were given a complex geometric puzzle to solve and were given 30 minutes to complete it. Participants who ate the radishes, and resisted the cookies, gave up the puzzle after about 8 minutes, while the cookie eaters lasted for about 19 minutes, on average. Did drawing on willpower to resist the cookies drain them of self-control for the subsequent task?
After this work, an array of studies has built a case for willpower depletion or ego depletion. These findings are linked to the glucose levels of our brain. Exerting our willpower uses a considerable amount of this fuel. Leaving our brains in a state of alert trying to get back to normal blood sugar levels. Not all sugars are created equal. Studies show that sugar, especially the pervasive high fructose corn syrup can increase the levels of stress hormones in the brain and trigger mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
Mark Muraven studied ego-depleted individuals and found them persisting longer on a self-control task when they were paid for their efforts or told their efforts would benefit others. Researchers on self-control also advise that muscles can become fatigued when overused in the short term, but over the long run, they are strengthened by regular exercise. For an average healthy person, the heart will have normal ups and downs.
When this happens, your heart rate goes up but the variability goes down, so your heart gets stuck at a higher rate, leading to physical feelings of anxiety and anger. Other research shows that people with high heart rate variability are better at:. Different factors influence this physiological measurement, from pollution to the food we eat.
Anything that puts your body or mind in a state of stress can interfere, whereas anything that allows you to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system will benefit you. Americans are also increasingly sleep-deprived, causing an epidemic of poor self-control and focus. Lack of sleep creates impulse control and attention problems similar to attention deficit ADHD and hyperactivity disorder. Whatever will make you happy at the moment will become a fixation, as you find yourself craving whatever your brain believes will make you feel better.
This activates your prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, thus rescuing your mind from a state of stress. Two other hindrances are self-criticism and temptation. Two psychologists, Claire Adams and Mark Leary invited a group of weight-watching women into the lab and encouraged them to eat doughnuts and candy—for the sake of science. Their plan was to make half of these dieters feel better about giving in to the doughnuts. Their hypothesis was that if guilt is a self-control deal breaker, maybe the opposite of guilt would support willpower.
The women were told they would be taking part in 2 different studies: one was on the effect food has on mood and the other was a taste test.
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The other half of the women received no message at all. The women with the self-forgiveness message ate 28 grams of candy. The women who had no message ate about 70 grams of candy. Feeling bad makes it harder to resist temptation because we want to cover our shame and guilt with instant pleasure, or in this case, candy.
Study after study shows how self-criticism is correlated with less motivation and worse self-control.
Economics — science succumbed to universalist temptations
Did you know that erotic images make men more likely to take financial risks? Or that fantasizing about winning the lottery makes people overeat? When your system is flooded with dopamine, the appeal of immediate gratification is amplified, leaving you less concerned about your long-term consequences and more prone to temptations of any kind. Subliminal environmental cues create tempting environments and retailers are fully aware of how these can trigger your impulses. Food and drink samples in markets will also leave people hungrier and thirstier, therefore in a reward-seeking mode.
This reward-seeking mode might result in extra purchases, and unintended buying of candy and chocolates. Marketers use the promise of reward to sell you their projects. Where does this leave someone with goals and challenges then?
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Simply summarized: avoid temptation when you can, and go easy on yourself when you indulge. A willpower challenge involves a conflict between two systems: the cognitive system and the impulsive system. Other willpower-strengthening activities are exercise, healthy eating, meditation and relaxation. All of these increase your PFC activation and willpower. Your mind tricks you into believing the object of your desire is what will make you happy. But long-term satisfaction is rooted in your ability to refrain from impulses that stray from your goals and values.
People with high willpower use it not to get themselves into crises. Leave a comment below. Baumeister, R. Self-regulation, ego depletion, and motivation.
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Social and Personality Psychology Compass , 1, Duckworth, A. The significance of self-control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 7 , — Hofmann, W. What people desire, feel conflicted about, and try to resist in everyday life. Psychological Science , 23 6 , — McGonigal, K. The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it.
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