“Our capacity for self control may be running on empty.
Every day, we pressure ourselves to control our impulses-to work harder rather than go home early, to avoid sugar, carbohydrates, and transfats; to save instead of spend; and to exercise courtesy rather than snap at the barista who flubbed our order. Meanwhile, we can’t ride the subway, turn on the TV, or open a magazine without finding an ad urging us to self-indulge. Balancing these two competing forces sometimes seems impossible. A new report from two Canadian researchers suggests why: Our capacity for self-control is far shallower than we realize.

“People have a limited amount of self-control, and tasks requiring controlled, willful action quickly deplete this central resource. Exerting self-control on one task impairs performance on subsequent tasks requiring the same resource,” write Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer N. Gutsell in their article in the journal Psychological Science. In their experiment, Inzlicht and Gutsell separated 40 individuals into two groups. In both groups, participants were fitted with EEG monitoring equipment and made to watch a disturbing wildlife documentary.

One group was asked not to display any reaction to the gruesome subject matter; the other group was instructed simply to watch the footage and not proscribed a reaction. Afterwards, both groups completed a rapid-fire color-matching test requiring a controlled response. The test showed that people who had suppressed their reaction to the documentary (measurable via the EEG readout) performed less well on the color-matching test.

According to the authors, the study “suggests a neuroscientifically informed account of how self-control is constrained by previous acts of control [and] that mental fatigue can occur relatively quickly and affect tasks unrelated to the depleting activity.” In other words, exercising control on one task makes it harder to exercise control on the task immediately following.”

(via The Futurist)