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Critical Faculties

The 'no' muscle

How to bulk up your self-control

(Jim Naughten/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher Shea
December 16, 2007

IT'S THE SEASON of temptation - groaning tables, open bars, tipsy co-workers whose beer goggles screen out your wedding ring. Which means, for most of us, that it's also the season for attempts at self-control.

In other words, it's time to start exercising your self-control muscle.

Your self-control muscle? Indeed. For many psychologists who study self-control, that's becoming more than a metaphor. Self-control, they argue, behaves almost literally like the biceps in your arm. When used too intensely, it gets worn out and can fail: Hold out against the snacks and hors d'oeuvres at a party and you might find yourself powerless to resist a few glasses of wine when you get home. When "exercised," it can get stronger: Conquer the urge to drink too much, and you may later find it easier to lose weight.

Willpower workouts don't have to be intense to be effective. Simple rituals of self-control, such as rigorously deleting "like" and "um" from your speech, one study found, might have payoffs down the road, when cheesecake (of whichever kind) beckons.

These are some of the findings emerging from an expanding body of work whose intellectual father is Roy F. Baumeister, an eminent psychologist at Florida State University. For a dozen years, Baumeister has been building the self-control-as-muscle theory with the help of graduate students, many of whom now hold their own posts in psychology departments, where they continue the project.

As if on cue for the holidays, Baumeister and two colleagues summed up the state of the subfield in a major psychology journal this month. Meanwhile, other scholars have begun to import the muscle model of self-control into surprising new areas, including race relations. (In interracial encounters, people exert self-control to avoid causing offense: The level of self-control they need, and how tired they feel afterward, varies with the level of racism.)

The theory has clear practical implications, and according to its proponents it also represents the rebirth of a strain of psychology that has been moribund since Freud's fall from grace in the social sciences. Freud viewed decision-making as a battle of internal forces and drives; indeed, that was how he thought the very self was constituted. In academic psychology departments, Freud's ideas have been supplanted by others that stress perception, cognition, learned skills, and innate abilities. But in conceiving of self-control as a muscle that gets tired, researchers are re-awakening Freud's view of the mind struggling against itself in a taxing, almost violent way. It's an "energy" model of psychology rather than a cognitive one.

"We used to say that energy models were so out of fashion that people weren't even against them," says Kathleen D. Vohs, a marketing professor (and psychology Ph.D.) at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. She co-wrote the recent review paper with Baumeister. "We think it might be time to return to motivational - energy models - but to do it in a more empirical setting."

Does the research offer a holy grail that makes it a cinch to shed pounds and never have that third glass of wine? Hardly. But when it comes to controlling unruly desires, most people will take what they can get. And knowing what you're up against can be half the battle.

The experiments Baumeister and his colleagues have done typically proceed this way: The psychologists ask people to do one challenging activity requiring self-control, quickly followed by one or two others. Researchers then compare the performances on the tests.

There's one consistent result: When you spend energy on self-control in one task, you exhibit less self-control later.

In one study, people who were told not to cry during a tearjerker documentary ran out of energy sooner than a control group when asked to squeeze and hold a handgrip immediately afterward. In another, test subjects who had to sit and look at a plate of cookies while nibbling on radishes later quit sooner when asked to solve two difficult - indeed, impossible - geometric puzzles, a further test of self-control.

In yet another experiment, some people were asked not to think of a white elephant while jotting down their thoughts, a particularly vexing challenge to self-control. Those same people later had trouble limiting their drinking during a taste-test involving beer - even though they were told that a third exercise, involving driving, would follow. (People who suppressed thoughts could not stifle laughter later while watching Robin Williams - in his prime - doing stand-up.)

People intuitively realize that self-control is a resource that can be depleted, studies find: Faced with two challenges in succession in the lab, they will husband some self-control in the first, like a runner saving something for the final dash.

And, rounding out the metaphor, a bottle of Gatorade just might get you through a moment of weakness. According to a paper published last month by Baumeister and another former graduate student, Matt Gailliot, now at the University of Amsterdam, replenishment of the body's glucose stores improves performance in laboratory tests of self-control.

If self-control can tire like a muscle, then one intriguing corollary is that it can also be built up like a muscle - and some research seems to say this is true. "Targeted effort to control behavior in one area, such as spending money or exercise," write Baumeister, Vohs, and Florida State's Dianne M. Tice, in the latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, "lead to improvements in unrelated areas, such as studying or household chores."

One practical implication of the muscle, or "ego depletion" model, is that you shouldn't overburden your self-control. "If you are having a little bit of a problem with weight gain," says Vohs in an interview, "you should work on that but realize that this is not the time to curb your spending when you go holiday shopping,"

"When I'm at the gym, I know I want to quit," says Mark Muraven, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany and a former Baumeister student, "but I'm going to keep pushing myself so that I can build that self-control - something that will improve other areas of my life."

So far, he says, it seems to be working ("I'm not an addict"), and he trusts the science, though he still has a weakness for Little Debbie snack cakes.

Not everyone agrees self-control is a muscle. Some psychologists say that Baumeister is making a mistake, for instance, in arguing that self-control is significantly different from other cognitive activities. Randall Engle, a professor of psychology at Georgia Tech, thinks the sorts of things that hurt cognitive performance in general probably hurt self-control, too. These include lack of sleep, alcohol, distraction, and hunger - low blood sugar affects mental and physical performance across the board.

"I do think you can get better at control, but it's not exercising a muscle," Engle says. "I think number one is avoiding distraction. When you walk into a room where there is an opportunity to eat or drink, don't get too distracted to handle that." Typical distractions include social anxiety and the general whirl of social activity.

Engle is also skeptical that self-control is as sensitive to particular challenges, in sequence, as Baumeister finds in the lab. If the muscle theory were true, he suggests, "It should be scary if you saw your pilot doing a crossword puzzle before the flight. You should say, 'Could you put this down and not do any cognitively demanding tasks?' And that's just not my intuition."

The suggestion that a burst of glucose - contained in any carbohydrate-heavy food - can curb self-control when glucose is depleted contains its own sweet paradox: What if your weakness is sugar? Do you grab a donut to keep from grabbing a donut? (Baumeister says that he and his colleagues use sucrose in the lab because it gets into the bloodstream quickly. In real life he would suggest heading off blood-sugar drops by eating more protein after one's self-control has been challenged.)

Thomas Webb, of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, argues that the depletion of self-control identified in the lab has more to do with folk beliefs about fading willpower than with innate psychological traits. He's done studies showing that people who undergo two self-control challenge tests in a row show no falloff in performance - if they concoct a solid plan for tackling the second task. In the real world, such a plan might involve knowing, when you enter a party, you're going to ask for a nonalcoholic drink right off the bat.

Despite the criticisms, the muscle model has become sufficiently accepted that psychologists are applying it to a widening circle of human behavior - even areas that might not seem immediately related to willpower.

At Northwestern University, Jennifer Richeson, a psychologist specializing in interracial relations, has found that whites who score relatively high on tests of implicit racism - that is, whites who do not express racist views but who subconsciously associate African-Americans with negative traits - find conversations with blacks psychically taxing, and that this is especially true when the conversations touch on controversial subjects. After such conversations, white test subjects perform poorly on other tests requiring self-control.

As Richeson describes them, the findings are bittersweet: On the one hand, they suggest that whites may avoid conversations with blacks not simply "because some people are bigots," but because they feel drained afterward. Less positively, if people avoid conversations across racial boundaries because of the strain placed on their self-control, they will avoid encounters that will, in the long run, reduce their implicit racism.

Richeson's work serves as a reminder that self-control plays a part in almost every aspect of human life, from getting up in the morning to deciding not to have an affair. No wonder psychologists still don't have a firm grasp of how it works. And no wonder so many of us will make earnest, short-lived resolutions in a few weeks, chagrined that our self-control collapsed during the season of temptation.

Christopher Shea's column appears regularly in Ideas. E-mail criticalfaculties@verizon.net.

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