Self-control is a muscle, and this more than a metaphor. Studies have consistently demonstrated that practising the right kinds of self-control tasks for merely two weeks can increase your overall self-control, like the way strength training increases the size of your muscles. Seemingly trivial tasks like opening the door with your non-dominant hand and telling yourself to maintain a good posture can actually help tackle more daunting willpower challenges!
Which tasks or small acts allow you to practise self-control? Researchers have found that the most effective ones are those that require you to inhibit your feelings, thoughts, desires, and behaviours. Therefore, using your phone with your non-dominant hand, refraining from cursing while speaking, or preventing your uncooperative fingers from always unconsciously leading you to Facebook for two weeks can all in theory boost your willpower.
Mark Muraven at Albany University recruited volunteers from the Albany, New York metropolitan area and tested this self-control strength model (self-control can be increased by exercising it) under the guise of ‘a study on smoking cessation’. Participants went through a two-week training programme and had their self-control levels measured before and after the training using the stop signal task, one of the more exciting tasks used by unimaginative psychologists. This task allows researchers to measure participants’ reaction times (faster reaction time, greater self-control) and number of errors made (fewer errors, greater self-control).
After the pre-training self-control assessment, participants were asked to practise one of four tasks for two weeks: (1) avoiding sweet foods as much as possible (2) squeezing a handgrip for as long as possible twice a day (3) solving maths problems (4) keeping a diary of acts that required self-control. Also, they had to report their daily accomplishments via a telephone system. Fortunately, the participants were relatively dutiful and reported skipping their daily tasks for only an average of two out of 14 days.
All participants survived the two-week ordeal, but only those who kept their hands off sweet foods and those who diligently tried to crush the handgrip daily performed better (i.e. greater self-control) on the stop signal task. Solving maths problems and keeping a record of self-control acts did not improve self-control, even though participants felt that they were exercising self-control.
These findings led Muraven to conclude that overall self-control can indeed be increased with training, but only with tasks that require us to inhibit an urge or behaviour (e.g. resisting the desire to devour that scrumptious cake or the desire to release the handgrip when there is physical discomfort). This explains why participants who solved maths problems or kept a diary did not have better self-control after two weeks—these two tasks did not require too much inhibition.
Therefore, look around and see what desires or behaviours you can inhibit. It may sound silly, but telling yourself to stop biting your nails now could perhaps give you the willpower to choose salad rather than cheeseburger during your next meal. If you didn’t pick salad, don’t be disheartened—be glad that you’ve stopped munching on your nails for a moment.
What self-control tasks are you going to practise? Share it below.
Muraven, M. (2010). Building self-control strength: Practicing self-control leads to improved self-control performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(2), 465-468. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.12.011