What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to

Your Inner Voice: A Key to Self-Control

That little voice in your head helps with impulse control.

Most of us have experienced it before. That little voice in our heads that tells us not to take that last slice of pizza, to "keep going" for that few extra minutes on the treadmill, or not to make that snippy comment to our co-worker that we desperately want to blurt out. Intuitively, we have a sense that we can tell ourselves what to do or talk ourselves out of something. But, does our inner voice really aid self-control and help us resist temptation? New research suggests the answer is "yes."

In a paper published this month in Acta Psychologica, University of Toronto psychologists Alexa Tullett and Mickey Inzlicht decided to take our inner voice to task. People performed what is called the Go/No-Go task in which they were instructed to press a button on a keyboard when they saw a yellow square appear on the computer screen (a "Go trial") and to refrain from pressing the same button when they saw a purple square appear (a "No-Go trial"). Go trials outnumber No-Go trials by about 2-1, so people become very accustomed to pressing the button every time a square appears on the screen. As a result, when a square appears that indicates that people should refrain from pressing the button, it's hard to inhibit one's button pressing response. Even though this task is pretty simple, it mimics all sorts of activities where we have to reign in an impulse. The question is, does our inner voice help us with impulse control?

To get at this question, the researchers asked people to do several other things while they performed the Go/No-Go task. On some trials, people had to say out loud the word "computer" over and over while they did the Go/No-Go task. Because repeating "computer" uses the same verbal resources that support our inner voice, it ties up our inner voice so it can't function properly. If, our inner voice is important for controlling our impulses (e.g., "don't press the button"), then it follows that people should perform worse on the Go/No-Go task when they are repeating "computer" than when they are not. Of course, to ensure that it is not the addition of any activity that disrupts Go/No-Go task performance, but specifically an activity that prevents folks from wielding the voice in their head, on other trials people performed another activity that was more spatial in nature. People were asked to continuously draw circles on a piece of paper with their non-dominant hand. Like repeating "computer" over and over, this circle drawing task is repetitive and requires some attention to do correctly, but importantly, it doesn't occupy verbal resources so the inner voice can still function properly.

Compared with the circle-drawing task, repeating "computer" resulted in more impulsive responding. People had a greater tendency to make a ‘Go' response - even when they shouldn't have. These results suggest that the inner voice helps us to exert self-control by enhancing our ability to restrain our impulses.

Keep in mind that repeating the word "computer" over and over is not the only way to lose one's inner voice. As I have blogged about previously, there is research out of my lab and others showing that when people are in pressure-filled performance situations (e.g., taking a test, about to give a speech, interviewing for a job), they worry - about the situation, it's consequences, and what might be on the line if they screw up. These worries are usually verbal in nature and are especially problematic for tasks that rely heavily on important thinking and reasoning skills because the worries co-opt the brain power that could otherwise be used to perform at our best. This new research suggests that, under pressure, we might have a double whammy on our hands. Not only do worries eat up important brain resources, but - like saying "computer" repeatedly - these worries also likely prevent us from exercising our inner voice to help us control our impulses when we need this control the most.

Check out my new book Choke, for tips about controlling worries, impulses, and hints about how to perform our best - especially under stress. In stores now!

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1Tullett, A., & Inzlicht, M. (2010). The voice of self-control: Blocking the inner voice increases impulsive responding. Acta Psychologica, 135, 252-256.



Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.


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