Controlling self-control: how self-control might be restored after you’ve used it up

Self-control – the ability to control our impulses and actions – is a critical factor every time we make a decision between conflicting goals. As consumers, we employ self-control in order to make informed, conscious choices rather than impulsive, spur-of-the-moment, often-regretted impulse purchases. We use self-control in our attempts to achieve higher goals, like when we endeavour to buy things that are closer to our ideal standards (e.g. ethically or sustainably produced items, or food that is healthy) rather than whatever provides the quickest and most impulsively gratifying pay-off (e.g. items that aren’t ethically produced or sustainable but are cheap or convenient, or food that is not healthy but is convenient and delicious). Self-control also seems like a dynamic and variable thing – we all know people we would consider to have particularly good or particularly poor self-control, but we also know that our own level of self-control can vary, maybe depending on what mood we’re in, how tired we are, who we’re with, where we are, whether the item we want to buy is full-price or on sale, or dozens of other factors.

So how does self-control work? It has been the focus of a huge amount of very interesting research, and over the years, a lot of work has been done to try to characterise how it changes in response to different contexts and circumstances. If I said “self-control is like a muscle – you need to use it to develop it,” that makes some kind of intuitive sense – it does seem like maybe the more you exercise your self-control, the better at it you might get. But what if I said “self-control is a finite resource – if you use it too much, you deplete it and don’t have enough”? That also makes some sort of intuitive sense – exerting that self-control takes effort (since it might involve suppressing emotions or strictly focusing your attention, which can be very mentally demanding) and effort can wear you down after a while. The research to date actually suggests that the latter analogy is the more accurate one, with self-control becoming diminished over time as it is exerted.

However, maybe we can still have some control over our self-control, as it were. Self-control might be a resource that gets depleted with use, but is there perhaps some way to mitigate the depletion? Is there a way to replenish the self-control more quickly than normal, or to prevent it from being run down as much?

To determine the answer to that question, it’s necessary to characterise self-control in a bit more detail. One theory proposes that self-control is composed of two stages: the recognition of the need for control, and the actual implementation of that control. When you give in to the temptation and go with an option that you know isn’t ideal, the cause of that lapse of self-control might have happened at either (or both) of those stages – you might not have recognised that the situation called for self-control and the option you chose wasn’t ideal in terms of your longer-term, more constructive goals, or you might have realised that but simply failed to do anything about it. To figure out if it’s possible to improve self-control, we need to figure out at which stage the lapse is occurring.

In neuroscientific terms, the two stages of self-control can be separated into two widely researched cognitive processes: the identification of a conflict between potential responses – the conflict stage – and the recruitment of the cognitive control needed to implement a resolution the conflict – the implementation stage. Different parts of the frontal cortex of the brain are responsible for these processes, which means that we could use brain imaging techniques to see if those different parts of the brain are activated during the different stages of enacting self-control. That is exactly what Hedgcock and colleagues did, as reported in a paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, getting their participants to perform a choice task while in an fMRI scanner. They found that when participants had their self-control depleted, activity in brain areas related to the implementation of cognitive control was diminished, compared to when participants had’t had their self-control depleted. However, depleting participants’ self-control had no effect on the activity in brain areas related to identifying conflict. This suggests that depleted self-control might be due to a depleted ability to summon up the cognitive control to do anything about the situation. So when you’re about to buy a chocolate bar instead of a banana as a snack, at some level your brain is probably doing a perfectly good job of going “this isn’t really in line with our long-term goals of being healthy, is it?” but you are then failing to summon up the capacity or motivation to suppress the desire for the chocolate bar, or to direct your attention to the banana and its health benefits, or to think closely about why it would be closer to your long-term goals to opt for the banana. You know it’s not the ideal choice, but you make it anyway.

Can we do anything about that? Hedgcock and colleagues tried to figure that out, introducing interventions that were designed to target the different stages of the self-control process. Participants initially provided some information about how strong or weak their preferences were for assorted healthy and unhealthy food items. After performing a cognitively demanding task in order to deplete their self-control, participants were randomly allocated to an intervention:

• In the conflict intervention, participants were told “… be mindful of the conflict between immediate desires and future health consequences of each option. Please write an example of this conflict below.” This was designed to target the conflict stage of self-control.
• Participants in the implementation intervention were instructed to “… be mindful of the behaviors that you will need to do in order to reach your health goals. Please write an example of these behaviors below.” This was designed to target the control implementation stage of self-control.
• Then of course there was a control group that received no intervention and were given no instructions (although in the interests of a more comparable control conditions, I think the researchers could have considered giving the control group a completely irrelevant, neutral task to write a brief response to).

Participants then indicated their preferences for the assorted healthy and unhealthy food items again. This allowed the researchers to assess whether any of the interventions had remediated the self-control depletion – less self-control would mean less healthy food preferences relative to the preferences indicated at the start of the experiment. If the conflict intervention or the implementation intervention worked at all, the preference towards unhealthy foods wouldn’t be as great as in the control condition.

The results: the implementation intervention significantly skewed participants’ preferences towards healthier food items relative to both the conflict intervention and the control condition, whereas preferences after the conflict intervention were not significantly different from the control condition. It seems that thinking about the implementation of efforts to achieve the more ideal goal might restore self-control to such an extent that achieving the more ideal goal actually becomes more likely.

Much more research needs to be done before we gain a thorough understanding of how self-control works, how it is depleted, and how it might be replenished, but the results of this study suggest that, on occasions when self-control needs to be put into action and choice needs to be made between conflicting options, it might pay to think about the behaviours that would need to be implemented to achieve the more ideal goal. Of course, it’s likely to be rather different in the real world compared to within the confines of an experiment – you probably won’t have researchers clearly and firmly instructing you to think about those behaviours carefully and write about them. To do that on your own would probably require (surprise surprise) extra self-control. But it might be of value to have plans and strategies for some of those awkward decision-making occasions that you can think likely to occur in your life, from not so brilliant dietary choices to impulse purchases at the shops, and anything where the short-term and long-term pay-offs are obstinately competing against each other to woo you.

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