Self-Control Might Be A Limited Resource

“Self-control is something for which I do not strive. Self-control means wanting to be effective at some random point in the infinite radiations of my spiritual existence.” —Franz Kafka

In A Nutshell

If you’re failing at keeping your resolutions to be a better person, it might be because you’ve run out of willpower. Some studies have suggested that willpower and self-control are limited resources; they call it ego depletion when we exhaust those resources. Sleep, food, and a positive mood boost can all help restore our willpower, and while the science is still arguing about how much of that is real and how much is in our heads, it’s as good as an excuse as any to go watch some funny cat videos in an attempt to restore lost willpower.

The Whole Bushel

You’ve resolved to eat better, exercise more, be a better person, volunteer with a charity, or just stop wasting time watching so much garbage on television.

How’s that working out for you?

There’s a theory that states that the self-control and willpower that allow us to carry through with all our lifestyle-changing goals is something of a limited resource and that without restoring out ability to control our desires and our bad habits, we’re going to fall right back into them.

It’s called either ego depletion or willpower depletion, and while the jury’s still out on whether it actually exists, there are some fascinating studies on the subject. They suggest it might not be entirely our fault if we lapse back into snacking on cookies rather than carrots. Instead, it might show us how to short-circuit our cravings.

Studies from the University of Toronto have found that people who are forced to make decisions in self-control tasks show less and less activity going on in their anterior cingulate cortex than people who were fresh when it came to having their willpower tested. There have even been studies done on dogs that are asked to resist treats, and it’s been found that the more obedient dogs who can do it have lower blood-glucose levels than dogs that just ignore the instructions and go for it.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister and his team, working from Case Western University, took a look at how exerting self-control impacts us in other ways. In one study, they asked participants to resist a tasty treat: chocolate.

Article Continued Below

Then, they asked them to try to solve some deliberately difficult puzzles to see how long it was before their willpower to succeed cracked and they gave up. Those that had already expended willpower to resist eating the chocolate burned out considerably faster on the puzzles than those who didn’t have the first self-control test to overcome.

In another test, participants were shown a film clip. They were presented with either Robin Williams or a particularly heartbreaking scene from Terms of Endearment, then told they were being filmed and they weren’t to show any emotion whatsoever. Then they were presented with a puzzle. The group that had watched the sad movie scene found it more difficult to concentrate on the puzzle, showing how exercising willpower can be physically exhausting.

Then, they went one step further—trying to restore spent willpower.

They found that a good mood seems to go a long way in resetting a person’s willpower, as does sleep and eating. And that good mood can be created by a number of things, they found, from watching some of Robin Williams’ stand-up comedy to being given even a small bag of candy and a thank-you.

It’s still debated just how willpower and self-control exist in us, though, and a much later Stanford study suggested that our own preconceived notions about willpower might be influencing our successes and failures as well. There, they found that only those who believed in the idea of willpower depletion suffered the ill effects of using up their willpower, while those who thought it was an unlimited resource weren’t nearly as exhausted.

Show Me The Proof

“Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?”
Is Willpower a Limited Resource?
Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!