“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”
‘I want to sleep in, but I should get up and get to work’. ‘I want to watch this movie, but I should do my paper.’ ‘I want to tell my partner that he’s totally irresponsible, but I should talk it through’. Every day we are tested between what we want to do – impulsively or through temptation – and what we should do with our long term interests in mind.
Our ability to actively resist our impulses or cravings is known as self-control or will power.
‘Self control’ definition
According to Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State Universty who specializes in self-control research, “Learning self-control produces a wide range of positive outcomes,’’
“Kids do better in school, people do better at work. Look at just about any major category of problem that people are suffering from and odds are pretty good that self-control is implicated in some way…Learning to bring your behavior under control even with arbitrary rules does build character in that it makes you better able to achieve the things you want to achieve later on.’’
Baumeister and his research team define self-control as:
“Self-control refers to the capacity for altering one’s own responses, especially to bring them into line with standards such as ideals, values, morals, and social expectations, and to support the pursuit of long-term goals. … Self-control enables a person to restrain or override one response, thereby making a different response possible.”
Baumeister, Vohs & Tice (review paper)
Why do some people stick to their New Year’s resolutions while others don’t? Why can some people withstand distraction and temptation and buckle down to the job at hand for as long as it takes to get it done? Why do some people seem to lack the necessary self-discipline in their diets, becoming obese or substance abusers? Why do some people succeed in giving up smoking while others do not?
Self-control depletion and glucose
What researchers are finding is that willpower is very much like a muscle – a mental muscle – that can be depleted through use. Muscle power depends on glucose levels – with sustained exertion the glucose gets burned up. Similarly, self-control is a limited resource that depends on glucose levels in the blood. This is not a surprise because glucose is the main energy supply for the brain. The more the glucose is used up through exerting will power on one task, the less will power is left in reserve for other subsequent activities that depend on it. This has been called ‘ego depletion’, since loss of self-control involves losing control of the ego.
Self-control depletion experiments
Baumeister and his colleagues have demonstrated ego-depletion in the laboratory. To exercise self-control, in one study they watched an emotionally charged video but were asked to suppress smiles and other facial reactions.
Both groups of video-watchers were then given a test (called the ‘Stroop task’) that taxed their concentration and attention. This test pits the meaning of color words against the colors they are printed in. Participants are asked to name the color in which words are printed, ignoring what they say – and this is a challenging task to do quickly – as you can see for yourself in the example below. The correct answers in the first line would be “green, red, blue”. Try the other lines as quickly as you can. The video watchers who had previously exercised their self-control by controlling their facial expressions did the worst on this test – in speed and accuracy – showing that their self-control had already been depleted by the film challenge.
How to self-control with glucose
In the experiment described above, glucose levels were also recorded. After the video, those who had suppressed their facial reactions (smiles, etc) had their blood glucose levels measured. Glucose levels had dropped significantly. The other participants who watched the same video but did not force a poker face, did not see a drop in their glucose levels: they still had a lot in the tank.
In another experiment, two groups did the Stroop task two times each, drinking a sweetened drink in between. One group drank lemonade with a sugar-free sweetener that has no glucose effect; the other group got lemonade sweetened with real glucose. The glucose group performed better than the sweetener group on their second Stroop task because their blood sugar had been replenished. So restoring glucose levels can restore self-control.
Tips for increasing will-power
Understanding of the biological and psychological underpinnings of our ability to control ourselves can help us improve our will power. It also has important application for people in the self-control business, such as coaches, therapists, teachers, and parents.
The findings by Baumeister make sense because it’s long been known that glucose fuels brain functioning. Having a bite to eat can help boost our willpower, and can help explain why smokers trying to quit or students trying to focus on studying often turn to food to sustain their resolve.
No studies have looked precisely at factors such as the Glycemic Index and its relationship to self-control and will power, but for a practical tip, if you need to muster will power for a task, try to ensure that you have not already drained doing something else, and consider drinking a sweet drink or glucose bar if you find your self-control or will power flagging.
Will-power and dieting
Consuming sugary drinks or snacks isn’t practical advice for a dieter struggling with willpower. However, the research does help explain why dieters who eat several small meals a day appear to do better at sticking to a diet than dieters who skip meals.
“You need the energy from food to have the willpower to exert self-control in order to succeed on your diet”
Strengthen will-power by exercising it
In addition to thinking about your glucose levels, you can also consider exercising your will power and self-control. Exercise can make muscles stronger, there is evidence that regular exertions of self-control can improve willpower strength.
“ Targeted efforts to control behavior in one area, such as spending money or exercise, lead to improvements in unrelated areas, such as studying or household chores.”
Baumeister, Vohs & Tice.
There is also a good scientific basis to the claim that i9 efficiently target the core mechanisms of self-control, greatly improving general will power levels. These tasks are similar to the Stroop task in some ways, involving filtering out distracting information. They also strongly engage short term memory mechanisms for flexibly updating goal-relevant information. These kinds of cognitive skills are called executive functions, and they are closely associated with self-control and will power.