The Joy of Distraction

Why do people fail at self-control?

Posted Apr 15, 2015

Self-control is the capacity to override one’s impulses, or urges in order to attain another goal (e.g., losing weight, quitting smoking, staying calm). Self-control success is acting in line with one’s long-term goals, and self-control failure is acting according with one’s short-term goals.

Negative affect is among the most important triggers of self-control failures. For instance, depressed people desire specific things that bring immediate gratification, and procrastinate or avoid any activity that involves effort. Negative emotional states are related to relapse for a number of addictive behaviors (e.g., overeating among chronic dieters and alcoholism).

People who are depressed tend to think of themselves as worthless. As a result of feeling worthless, they place less value on their own wellbeing, and less inclined to exercise self-control when it comes to activities that harm them. These activities (e.g., drug abuses, or overeating) numb their feeling and distract them from their negative affect.

Individuals suffering from depression tend to ruminate, which involves fixation on their negative feelings.  Their inability to inhibit or disengage from self-focused thoughts may motivate them to turn to escapist behaviors, such as binge eating or binge drinking. Suicide wishes may be regarded as an extreme expression of the desire to escape. The desire to escape is possibly related to the persons’ viewing themselves as helpless and incompetent.

Negative affect is the most cited instigator of binge-eating episodes, and binge eating appears to be associated with a decrease in negative affect. Overweight people report that feeling anxious or depressed is a key motivation causing them to eat excessively. Obese people overeat to reduce negative emotions such as boredom, stress, anxiety and loneliness. The mechanisms by which eating reduce anxiety may include increase serotonin, association of discomfort with eating, and faulty hunger awareness. They are unable to distinguish between hunger and anxiety because obese people have learned to eat in response to anxiety as well as hunger. Ingestion of high fat and carbohydrate “comfort foods” dampens stress response. Indeed, sweet solutions have been shown to rapidly calm stress responses in human newborns.

Similarly, the behavior of drinking alcohol is guided by the anticipation of feeling better. People do not get up in the morning and say, “Today I’m going to be an alcoholic.” We may feel depressed and empty. We learn that drinking eases the pain, and it most often accomplishes this. However, once the emptiness passes, we attend only to the negative consequences of excessive drinking. The negative feelings that result from the awareness of these consequences probably lead to more drinking, and the cycle continues.

Being socially rejected by others also impairs self-control. The neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger (2004) shows that the same areas of the brain that register physical pain are active when someone feels socially rejected. In contrast, positive social relationships are one of the primary motivations for exercising self-control. When your brain knows you are safe and you are with someone you can trust, it needn’t waste precious resources coping with stressors.

In sum, emotional distress causes a behavioral shift toward immediate improvements in mood, and so people make poor decisions. In fact, the problem with stress as a risk factor is the way some people respond to stress, such as smoking or overeating. Thus, the impulsive behavior is like a purchase of a short-term reduction in negative affect at the price of a long-term maintenance of the negative affect. To break free from negative affect and rumination, individuals are encouraged to engage in problem solving, reassessment of the situation, and practicing mindfulness (notice their thoughts without judging).