Willpower: it's even worse than you think

Interesting article in the online version of the Wall Street Journal, summarizing some recent findings about willpower.  The author, Jonah Lehree, also wrote the books How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.  Here are some excerpts:
New Year's resolutions are exactly the wrong way to change our behavior.

...we should respect the feebleness of self-control...

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.
Here's where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a "cognitive load"—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

There's something unsettling about this scientific model of willpower. Most of us assume that self-control is largely a character issue...

Since the most popular New Year's resolution is weight loss, it's important to be aware that starving the brain of calories—even for just a few hours—can impact behavior. Skipping meals makes it significantly harder to summon up the strength to, say, quit cigarettes. Even moderation must be done in moderation.

For instance, Prof. Mischel has found that four-year-old children who are better at resisting the allure of eating a marshmal low—they get a second marshmallow if they can wait for 20 minutes—are the ones who sing songs, play with their shoelaces or pretend the marshmallow is a cloud. In other words, they're able to temporarily clear the temptation out of consciousness. (Prof. Mischel has also shown that these "high delayers" go on to get higher SAT scores and have lower body-mass indexes as adults.) Because they know that willpower is weak, they excel at controlling the spotlight of attention: When faced with candy, they stare at the carrots.
While this willpower research can get dispiriting—the mind is a bounded machine, defined by its frailties—it also illustrates some potential remedies. Prof. Baumeister figured that it might be possible to strengthen willpower by exercising it, and in 1999, he asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks. Interestingly, these students showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control, at least when compared to a group that didn't work on sitting up and standing straight.
The lesson is that the prefrontal cortex can be bulked up, and that practicing mental discipline in one area, such as posture, can also make it easier to resist Christmas cookies. And when a dangerous desire starts coming on, just remember: Gritting your teeth isn't the best approach, as even the strongest mental muscles quickly get tired. Instead, find a way to look at something else.

No comments: