Can You Boost Your Self-Control?

Posted on March 4, 2014

Photo: flickr

As far as examples of willpower go, one of the most impressive you'll ever find is the "incredible Buddha boy" chronicled in GQ a few years back by George Saunders. The boy had been meditating under a tree for seven months, evidently without food or water. It was a display of self-control so haunting that readers couldn't help but wonder how such a person could exist while the rest of us find it so hard - really, impossible - to rise from the couch and go to the gym, or read a book, or in some cases just reach the remote.

The prevailing scientific wisdom says that people operate with a finite supply of self-control. In an insta-classic study from the 1990s, psychologists found that test participants who pushed themselves to suppress a thought for six minutes subsequently gave up more quickly on an unsolvable anagram than those who came into the puzzle fresh. Exerting self-control on an initial task evidently drained people of persistence for a second one. Willpower seemed to tire a bit every time we use it, a little like a muscle.

The idea that self-control might be a limited resource is tremendously appealing. It simultaneously suggests why our willpower often fails us (we've used too much of it recently) and how we can conserve it (strengthen the muscle with self-control tasks).

While the depletion model of self-control has been validated by more than a hundred empirical studies, it remains rife with limitations and rough edges. In an upcoming paper for Trends in Cognitive Science, a research team led by Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto not only points out some of the theory's shortcomings but proposes an alternative: iIt's not that our willpower weakens, it's that our motivations change.

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Category(s):Control Issues

Source material from Fast Co Design