Picture it: You're in the middle of making a string of important decisions at work or with your family when—all of a sudden—you realize you really need to pee. Common sense would suggest that you should politely excuse yourself, attend to your business, and return so that you can make clear -headed decisions without being distracted by the need to go.
But common sense is wrong.
New research suggests that holding it in actually facilitates our ability to control our impulses and make the best decisions in whatever situation we find ourselves.
For some time psychologists have known that visceral states such as hunger and desire can affect the decisions people make: People buy more unhealthy food at the grocery store when their stomachs are empty, and they are more likely to engage in unsafe sexual practices when they are aroused, even when they are aware of the potential consequences. It's also been shown that these visceral states lead to more impulsive behavior in general—not just in the context of food or sex. So it wasn't such a big leap to think that, maybe, inhibiting your bladder might spill over and lead to better inhibition ability in all sorts of situations.
To test this idea, researchers Mirjam Tuk and colleagues had people complete several different decision-making tasks after drinking a great deal of water (meant to increase the urge to urinate). In one task, known as "the Stroop task," people were asked to identify the color of the ink a word was written in. This is easy if the word is "green" and the ink color is green as well. It becomes more difficult if the word is "blue" but it's written in green ink. To successfully complete the task, people have to inhibit their automatic tendency to read the word and just name the color the word is written in. In another task, people were asked a series of questions in which they had to choose between getting a small reward soon, or a large reward later in time. For example, participants chose between receiving €16 the next day or €30 in 35 days. (The study was conducted in the Netherlands.) Inhibiting the desire for the immediate payout leads to greater earnings in the long run.
What the researchers found was that the stronger people's urge to pee, the better they were at controlling their impulses. Folks were better at inhibiting reading the word and just naming the ink color in the Stroop task, and they were better at inhibiting their impulses in the monetary decision-making task. People who had to go were more willing to forego a smaller sum of money sooner and instead wait for the bigger payout later than people who didn't need to pee.
Interestingly, people's impulse control was also better when the researchers primed their urge to go by having them search through a word puzzle for words like urination, toilet, and bladder before they completed the decision-making tasks.
Visceral drives have an enormous impact on people's daily lives, but this new research shows that these states have even more of an impact than anyone previously thought. The next time you are trying to make a difficult decision, in which the best option may not be the most immediately rewarding or appealing, and you find yourself needing to pee, push common sense aside and finish your decision making with a full bladder.
You are likely to make a better decision than if you don't have to go.
For more on connections between the mind and body, check out my book Choke!
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Tuk M. et al. (2011). Inhibitory Spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains. Psychological Science.