In Practice

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Is Everyone's Self-Control Depleted By Use?

UK study shows that some people are more resilient to self-control depletion.

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Quite a bit of research has shown that using self-control is depleting: When people use up self-control in one area, they often perform worse on subsequent tasks requiring self-control. 

However, other research suggests the story might be more complicated than this (isn't it always?!).

One of the physiological signs of self-control depletion is lower blood glucose. This is because when we use self-control, extra glucose gets sent to the brain.

new UK study by Karen Niven and colleagues asked people to perform a self-regulation task. They were asked to listen to 15 minutes of selected music and "told the music they were about to hear was hard to feel happy to, but that they should try to make themselves feel happy and maintain the happy mood throughout the task."

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Blood glucose was measured before and after the task. The results showed the expected drop in blood glucose, but as predicted by the researchers, this was only observed for people who had rated themselves as less good at self-control in their lives generally. For people who rated themselves as good at self-control in their lives generally, there was no change in their blood glucose.*

The researchers' theory behind these results is that people who are good at self-control do it in a more efficient way (and often automatically) and therefore it doesn't deplete their self-control resources (at least not when the self-control task is relatively short).

The researchers had all participants listen to another 15 min music selection at a separate session (sessions were one week apart) and asked them to try to feel sad while they were listening to the music. This task has been shown to not require much self-control, and as expected, blood glucose levels didn't differ between the good vs. less good emotion regulators after this task.

*Readers should note that when I say good vs. less good at self-control, these categories were created using a "median split." The half of the sample who rated themselves as better at self-control were classified as the "good emotion control group" and the other half were classified as the "poor emotion control group." So, these terms are relative. This distinction is important because often in studies, almost everybody rates themselves as above average.

If you liked this article

If you liked this article, you'll probably like this one on 50 Common Cognitive Distortions.

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Image credit: Wow Surf School Gisborne, New Zealand.

Alice Boyes, Ph.D. translates principles from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and social psychology into tips people can use in their everyday lives.

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