How to control yourself with the sweet taste of willpower


The Moron Test

Moron alert

It’s not my fault.

My kids downloaded it to my phone. Truly. It’s one of those kind of annoying, kind of addictive, kind of “have to beat it to prove I’m not a complete moron” apps.

Sadly, this one really is called The Moron Test, available in your favorite format.

When you’ve got nothing better to do (whenever that is) download it – you might learn something. And you might also come to understand some useful brain stuff for you and your kids while you’re at it.

At the root is the problem of control: how we exercise it, how we stop ourselves doing stuff, and the benefits we might expect.

It’s hard to stop once you’ve started…

The Moron Test plays on the difficulty we have with control by asking you, from time to time, not to do something. “Don’t press the green button!!”. What’s even harder is that from the very start you’re sucked in by having to respond under time pressure, with a positive response, to most items. Consequently, you’re in the habit of answering a certain way, as your brain likes to do things familiar ways.

(Side note: You can see a similar process at play in the Stroop Test, long a staple of psychological testing, which I’ve included for fun at the very bottom.)

When The Moron Test then asks you for a negative action, you’ve got to come to a screeching halt, deny the brain the now familiar, and expected, path of least resistance option, and choose a different course from before.

Will power

What Roy Baumeister and collaborators discovered (article closer to the bottom below)*, is that there’s a cost to this. Unfortunately, it takes more brain resources to prevent ourselves from doing something, than to do something. By resources I mean energy, which for your brain is glucose.

Stopping yourself doing something depletes energy faster and tires you out more quickly. In energy-sucking glucose use, this willpower is expensive. But, and here’s where their work gets intriguing, so are the knock-on effects.

In real life, if you can remember the time when you’ve tried and tried to resist temptation, only to finally give in, you’ll understand what I mean. When we really, reeeealllly, want that piece of cake, it takes a fair amount of mental energy to resist. Resisting takes effort. It’s tiring, and the more tired we get, the more likely we are to give up. And that’s just the start.

Won’t power?

What Baumeister suggests is that willpower really is like a muscle. Use it and it starts to get tired and, here’s the kicker, it is less effective when you use it next. Its reserves are depleted, and it doesn’t function as well.

Baumeister showed this by getting subjects to complete a task that asked them to control their impulses. This could be resisting delicious cookies while  hungry, having to focus on a visual stimuli while ignoring other stimuli, or by seeking to suppress common stereotypes. For all conditions, subjects showed a significant drop in glucose.

And they then showed significant impairment on the next task that required the use of willpower.  This involved solving tough puzzles, restraining thoughts and so on. In each case, participants showed marked lapses in performance.

The sugar pill

Naturally, then, you’d say that if the problem is a lack of glucose, then just add glucose. Which is what Baumeister said, too. (And then wrote about it. Link to the book close to the bottom.)

Sure enough, with the addition of a sugary drink (not sweetener, but real glucose), performance subsequently improved for the next willpower task. Makes sense, no?

Now before you say that the solution to maintaining your willpower to avoid eating sweet food is to eat sweet food, there’s more.

Glucose and performance

Interestingly but, I guess not surprisingly, the same limitations happen elsewhere.

If you’ve got kids you’ll know how irrational they can be when they haven’t had enough to eat, particularly late in the afternoon. Parents don’t call it jungle hour for nothing. And then there’s this.

In a study of judges and the parole decisions they made, there were clear indicators that their decisions were favorable first thing in the morning, and became increasingly unfavorable as the morning wore on until, voila, they had lunch, and therefore glucose. Immediately, afterwards, paroles were granted again. Now we call it decision fatigue.

Naturally this has interesting implications for parole hearing scheduling, and lawyers providing parole documents along with “Documents Your Honor. Would you like fries with that?”. Which is exactly what Baumeister had found too.

Building willpower muscles

So what Baumeister does is to show that, just like a real muscle, willpower is weakened by use when reserves aren’t replenished, and can be firmed and toned by training.

He recruited subjects into willpower experiments and showed that, after only a few weeks, they were more resistant to depletion, and had made gains in self-control in other areas of their lives, such as eating fewer snacks, watching less tv and so on.

Especially for dieting where there seems to be a nasty catch-22, building up willpower muscles first might be a good idea

So here’s the take home bit

Self-control is a great predictor of success; one of the best. It’s a brain mechanism of limited capacity, but which we understand reasonably well. And we seem to be able to train it, and work around its shortcomings.

Baumeister suggests incremental exercises, for small things, such as tidiness. And one thing at a time, or maybe two, but not massive change, and you’ll notice gains in general self-control. (Near the bottom, there’s a little clip of Baumeister talking about his work.)

All the while, look out for signs of glucose depletion.

For kids, you might also want to think about reinforcements alongside willpower training.

A little extra…

If you want to give yourself some additional support for habit change, and to help with motivation to support your willpower, then you might want to check out these guys. Cool book too.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Willpower, glucose

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Close to the bottom

If you really want to read more, you could buy the book here, written with John Tierney. No affiliate link.

Closer to the bottom

*Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 92, No. 2, 325–33

Near the bottom

Roy-Baumeister-on-Willpower-and-Goal-Achievement-517159344

The very bottom

In the Stroop Test, named after John Ridley Stroop, you’ll see interference in reaction time by asking the brain to do something different from what’s expected – the word for a color is printed in a different colour from that of the word itself. In the three columns below, you’ll see a control on the left-most column, then two test columns.

The middle column asks you to say the color, while it’s matched by the correct word. The real test comes in the final column, when you have to say the color, which is different from the written word. Have a try. Read as fast as you can, and see how much more trouble you have, and how many mistakes you make, with the final column.

Red

Red

Red

Blue

Blue

Blue

Green

Green

Green

Blue

Blue

Blue

Yellow

Yellow

Yellow

Red

Red

Red

Green

Green

Green

Yellow

Yellow

Yellow

Blue

Blue

Blue

Yellow

Yellow

Yellow

Red

Red

Red

Green

Green

Green

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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2 Responses to How to control yourself with the sweet taste of willpower

  1. Steven Sarff says:

    I think I didn’t understand the instructions on your stroop test. Am I to read them out loud going left to right on each row?
    I liked the post.

    • Hi Steven

      Glad you enjoyed it. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. No, read from top to bottom, beginning with the left hand column in black (easy), then the middle (easy), then the right. The right hand column, where the words are in a different color from the word itself, is the hard one. I usually find I can do four or five quickly and then it starts to come undone!

      B

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