Self-control is difficult.
If you’ve ever been on a diet, then you know how hard it is to stay on track. You try to be good but at some point the voice saying “no” gives up. That’s when eating just one cookie becomes the whole bag and a bucket of fried chicken.
It’s disheartening to try not doing something, but then end up doing it anyway. New research from the University of Toronto suggests the reason we give up (and give in) has to do with how our brain works.
Dr. Michael Inzlicht, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, has been studying how self-control pathways work in the brain. His research helps show that humans only have a limited supply of self-control: when people spend too much energy on controlling their thoughts, they become tired and less able to notice errors.
His latest study will be published in the November issue of Psychological Science. In the study, two groups watched documentary clips depicting animals suffering or dying. One group was told to control their feelings, while the other watched normally. After, each group was asked to perform a test that required self-control called a Stroop test (familiar to anyone who plays Brain Age).
A Stroop test requires people to name the colour a word is painted in and not the word itself. (For example: horse cow dog. Easy, right?) It becomes difficult when the words given are the names of colours. (Now try it again: black green green.) Self-control is needed to answer the question correctly because humans instinctively read a word even when asked to name a colour. (“Black, green, green.”)
The group that held their feelings during the clips (using self-control) did significantly worse on the Stroop test than those who watched the clips normally. Dr. Inzlicht suggests this shows that previous acts of self-control affect later acts of self-control. And when self-control is “used up,” it becomes harder to match our actions with our goals. (Such as, “do not eat that cookie.”)
Though this research doesn’t give any practical tips for dieters, it may help them feel better when they occasionally cheat. Or when they throw their remotes at the terrible Valerie Bertinelli ads for Jenny Craig.
Photo by stillsinflux from the Torontoist Flickr Pool