I'm from a long line of little spenders. Not so much material girls--no fancy dresses or designer shoes. But a sale at Kohl's? The endless farm auctions and flea markets of central Illinois? I was all cringing teenager as my mother tried to argue a woman down over a set of ten-dollar China on the Spoon River Drive. Now I'm the one rolling my eyes at the consignment store as if to say, "Really? Thirty dollars for a used high chair?" The money we spend is more a slow trickle than the hemorrhaging habits of true shopaholics, but the little things add up.
Visceral states such as hunger, fatigue and sexual desire have long been known to have a negative impact on impulse control--though we tend to underestimate their pull on our behavior. You go to the grocery store hungry and wind up spending $100 more than you'd intended. Driving home beleaguered after a long day at work, a truly surprising torrent of traffic insults bubbles up from your Id. (Fortunately your Super Ego keeps you from voicing them!) Even more alarming, in a study on the effects of sexual arousal, men in an aroused state predicted a greater likelihood of acting in a sexually forceful manner than non-aroused participants. There also tends to be a spillover effect; a man watching porn suddenly decides he needs a few drinks and a bag of potato chips, his heightened sexual urges feeding other visceral appetites. As Nathan Heflick reported, the medial prefrontal cortex (the area responsible for social cognition and essentially recognizing another person as human) did not light up in the brains of men rating high for sexism when viewing pictures of scantily clad women. Sadly, the views also carried over to non-scantily clad women such as the female experimenter.
A study led by Loran Nordgren also showed that visceral states affect our empathy for others. Since we tend to underestimate the pull of cravings for food, sex, drugs etc., we often stigmatize those who overindulge. In a study where participants were in a 'cold state' (not hungry), they judged binge-eating more harshly than when in a 'hot state' (hungry). Simply reminding participants of what it felt like to be starving did not work--they had to actually be hungry. Unfortunately, there was no empathic spillover to unrelated domains like compulsive gambling, in spite of the behavioral spillover to unrelated domains.
What all these drives have in common is that they trigger a positive dopamine response. We know that a Big Mac is not on the diet plan, but to effectively resist it, we have to stick with more effortful long term planning to override the "dopaminergic reward circuitry of the brain" which serves as a general reward system. Researchers call the Big Mac struggle 'self-control conflicts.' It's been argued that two basic motivational drives underlie our behavior--the BAS (behavioral approach system) and BIS (behavioral inhibition system). The BAS emphasizes approach or moving towards something for a reward, while BIS refers to avoiding punishment or aversive experiences through inhibition. BAS is affiliated with cluster traits like extraversion, novelty seeking and impulsivity. It's possible that people with addiction issues have a more sensitive behavioral approach system than others, making it harder to resist the immediate dopamine boost of short-term gratification.
The good news: If you're looking to save a little money or reign in an impulsive behavior or two, the effect works in reverse! After drinking several cups of coffee, researcher Mirjam Tuk found herself stuck in class, bladder at the breaking point, with quite a while to go. She began to wonder whether a visceral state associated with inhibition (like bladder control), might have a spillover effect which helped people control their impulses. Lots of research had been done on the adverse effects of visceral states on self-control, but to date there was nothing studying inhibition and visceral states.
After conducting four studies, Tuk and her team found that 'trying to hold it,' did in fact help people achieve greater self-control in other areas. Even exposure to external cues, like words having to do with urination created a spillover effect giving the participants greater self-control. People seem to have a general inhibition system with motor and cognitive controls originating in the same area. These findings contradict the rather depressing ego-depletion studies, which found that each attempt to control yourself would leave you 'weaker.' In other words, you might be able to resist eating a donut for breakfast, but by mid-afternoon you would have so depleted your defenses that you'd succumb to the office-lounge cake.
I've never been a paragon of volition, so I much prefer the new findings! The researchers suggested that the difference may stem from the fact that ego-depletion studies rely on the conscious effort of participants to overcome a volitional obstacle, whereas the visceral inhibition studies operate at well...a more visceral level. It is possible to have inhibitory visceral spillover effects on an unrelated task while trying not to wet your pants. Admittedly, walking around having to urinate all day does not sound like the most sustainable of strategies for resisting terrible behavior. Fortunately, other researchers with work in press found that firming one's muscles by clenching the fist worked much the same way. I'm waiting with baited breath for that study to come out. Sure, you'll look a little weird pushing your baby around Target with a clenched fist; but you could save yourself some extra money on the mace you'll need for those 'high-sexism' males on the prowl.