We all have a social persona—the way we've chosen to represent ourselves in the world. It's automatic, and it doesn't take much effort to maintain. It feels comfortable.
But socially demanding situations often require us to consciously modify this familiar way of interacting. If you're the kind of person who kids around and teases, you'll make a conscious effort to tone it down during a staff meeting with the company president. If you tend to be very intense or competitive, you'll keep that under wraps on a blind date.
In smaller ways, we do this kind of social fine-tuning all the time. One study found that we spend as much as three hours every day managing our self-presentation.
As you may have noticed, this effort at self-control can have a rebound effect. Overriding your natural responses is hard work, and if you've spent all day managing your public image, you may have more trouble than usual maintaining your willpower when you're alone.
We've all been there: After a long day trying to please a boss, deal with demanding clients and never lose your patience, it's that much harder to drag yourself to the gym. Or stay away from cigarettes. Or keep your temper when your mother pressures you to come to great-aunt Gladys' 75th birthday party.
Managing the impression we're making on others uses up our reserves of self-control, says Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist in the marketing division of the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. "My favorite example is a job interview: you want to be seen as both competent and likable and possibly to a skeptical audience," she says. "This is an incredibly difficult self-presentational task."
Consciously trying to be on your best behavior—keeping your mouth shut when you'd rather speak up, faking or exaggerating an emotion you don't really feel—taxes psychological resources, making it difficult for you to summon up your willpower later on.
When that happens, the bad habit you've been keeping under control stages a comeback. "Your underlying tendencies come out," says Vohs. "You're not going to the gym, or you're not eating correctly—whatever it is you struggle with the most. If you're not a drinker anyway, you probably won't go out and start. But if you are, this would be the time."
To measure this effect, Vohs put people in socially awkward situations that required a conscious adjustment of appearance and behavior, and afterward asked them to do tasks that demand willpower. In one experiment, people were asked to publicly present themselves counter to typical gender roles. Men were asked to record a video describing themselves as good friends and good communicators; women were asked to describe their efficient work habits.
Afterward, they had to squeeze a handgrip for as long as they could. Both men and women had a harder time forcing themselves to keep hanging on to the handgrip if they'd previously described themselves in unfamiliar terms.
Another group of people was asked to make a recording that would be presented to other students. Half were told to act naturally, while the other half were asked to come across as both competent and likable. Some were also told that the recording would be played for a very skeptical audience.
All the volunteers then watched a disturbing video, and were told to conceal any expression of emotion. Those who had been focusing on being competent and likable—and especially those who thought they'd have a skeptical audience—had more difficulty stifling their reaction to the film.
A similar thing happens, by the way, when you feel excluded or socially spurned. In one experiment conducted by Vohs' collaborators, people were led to believe that nobody in a large group of potential collaborators wanted to work with them. They were then encouraged to eat from a large bowl of cookies—and those who thought they'd been rejected ate about twice as many as people who'd been told they were in high demand.
The good news: It may be possible to build up your reservoirs of self-control. Plus, as you get used to a new social role, it does get a little bit easier.