Ever wonder why going all week without stalking your ex on Facebook usually concludes with a major weekend stalk session? How about the diets that inevitably end by piling all the weight back on and gaining more? And then there’s New Year’s Day, when you vow to change your behavior patterns. Everything from cutting out sugar to ending the procrastination on that brilliant screenplay fills your list of resolutions. Those first few days or weeks of self-control might feel empowering and be successful, but according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people (conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman) 88 percent of these resolutions fail to stick
It gets worse. The willpower you are mustering to get even a few days Candy Crush-free could be making you susceptible for a big relapse into sweet video game oblivion. Studies have shown we have a limited amount of energy available for resisting temptation and when it runs out we become less able to exhibit self-control and our urges increase. This is called ego depletion (the state of diminished resources following exertion of self-control) and it’s no joke. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of willpower but it’s also taking care of short-term memory, solving abstract problems and keeping us focused. Exert too much willpower and your brain gets tired out.
Mark Muraven at the University at Albany conducted an experiment in 2002 to explore ego depletion. A group of male participants was asked to write down their thoughts, while not thinking about a white elephant. This five-minute exercise was equal to trying to concentrate on a boring task at work. After this the subjects took part in a beer taste test, but not before being told that the next exercise would take place while driving a car. The white elephant group drank considerably more beer than the control group, whose prior task had been only a few simple math problems. This suggests that the arduous mental task tired out the self-control muscle necessary to resist the extra brews. In a similar study those passing on cookies and chocolate for the less exiting radish were more likely to give up on a frustrating task than those who indulged in the sweets. This is what happens with the “muscle” of self-control becomes fatigued.
Another interesting study suggests that even discussing sensitive topics requires self-control, which can in turn cause ego depletion. In 2003, researchers Richeson and Shelton had one group of white subjects talk about racial politics with a group of black people. Another all-Caucasian group had the conversation with members of their own race. Afterwards the participants from the racially mixed group had a much harder time when asked to complete the Stroop task (i.e. reading the word “blue” when printed in green).
Here’s the good news. This willpower muscle can be strengthened through training. Simple acts like practicing good posture or writing with your non-dominant hand can help you to have more self-control in other areas of your life.
So going cold turkey on all of your vices at once, or dieting during a particularly challenging time at work may not be your best bet. We so often set ourselves up for failure this way. If your new year’s resolutions are in the 88 percent, this may be a cue that you are experiencing ego depletion. Remember that your prefrontal cortex has a lot of work to do, and that attempting small feats of willpower regularly instead of big sweeping gestures once a year is a better bet.
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