We all face situations that push our self-control to the limit, and some of us definitely can handle them better than others (i.e. without a meltdown). But do we have an unlimited potential supply of self-control, or is it truly possible to use it up and just run out after a while?
New research is suggesting that, in fact, we may all have a limited supply — different for each person, of course. When you exert a lot of self-control in one situation, you may have less available for later. Therefore, at least according to the research, it might make sense to choose the times you use your self-control wisely, so you’re not depleted at the wrong time — such as just as you are arriving at a party filled with temptation in the form of greasy appetizers and rich desserts.
The study, part of a larger ongoing project on sleep deprivation at the University of Texas-Austin, focused on 58 volunteers.1 Half of them were kept awake for 24 hours straight while the other half got a good night’s sleep. All of the participants then viewed movie clips from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and Trainspotting that prominently featured gag-inducing instances of vomit and feces. (What will they think of next?)
Some of the participants were permitted to react to what they were watching, while others were told to keep their reactions to themselves (exercise self-control, in other words). Afterward, the subjects played a game of chance. Those who won were allowed to celebrate by blasting their opponent with noise. The participants who had not shown any reaction while watching the film clips engaged in a noise level 33 percent higher than their counterparts who had expressed their emotions earlier. These results were the same whether the volunteers were well rested or not, showing that in the case of aggression, lack of sleep is not a factor. Good news, since other studies have found that most of us are chronically sleep deprived to some extent.
But back to the research at hand, the findings point toward self-control as sort of a finite pie, and the larger the slices you use up, the less is left until the tin is empty…until some time later when you get to refill it. So in other words, when you know you are going to be needing your self-control to be at maximum levels, such as watching what you eat, not overspending during shopping, or even just being with someone who taxes your patience, you might want to take it easy beforehand. Do something relaxing or at least nothing that will wear away at your self-control and deplete it before you need it most.
In addition, it turns out that self-control may be a more important life indicator than we ever imagined. A study earlier this year at Duke University in Raleigh, North Carolina, found that self-control breeds success among children.2 Those youngsters who displayed more self-control grew up to become more financially responsible, productive, and even healthier members of society. In fact, self-discipline was shown to have roughly as much influence as major life-affecting factors such as IQ and socioeconomic background.
The study showed that when self-control issues begin in early childhood, they are often unresolved and follow through into maturity. As adults, those with the lowest measure of self-control had a much greater incidence of health issues such as high blood pressure, weight problems, and gum disease than those with more self-control. They were also more likely to be single parents, have drug or alcohol addictions, been convicted of a crime, and have poor credit or problems with money.
Ultimately, when we are lacking self-control, it affects us in a broad manner across our lives. If the latest study is any indication, even those with deeper reserves of it can come up short at times. The great unknown here is how much of our self-control reserves are “acquired” in life through exercising them. In any case, you might want to view self-control like a professional athlete views muscles — to be exercised on non-game days so that they are stronger when needed during the game. Whether you know yourself to realistically have a greater or lesser supply, you will benefit from not overburdening whatever self-control you possess, other than on “non-game” days — so it’s there when you truly need it.
1 Vohs, Kathleen D.; Glass, Brian D.; Maddox, W. Todd; Markman, Arthur B. “Ego Depletion is Not Just Fatigue.” Social Psychological & Personality Science. 4 October 2010. Social and Personality Psychology Consortium. 15 June 2011. http://spp.sagepub.com/content/2/2/166.abstract.
2 Moffitt, Terrie E.; Arseneault, Louise; Belsky, Daniel; et al. “A Gradient of Childhood Self-Control Predicts Health, Wealth, and Public Safety.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 24 January 2011. National Academy of Sciences. 17 June 2011. <http://www.pnas.org/content/108/7/2693.abstract?sid=0aff5399-8c2a-4d53-81b5-c8be0d604691>.