There’s an interesting blog post here about “How to Boost Your Willpower,” which tells us that “researchers are finding is that willpower is essentially a mental muscle, and certain physical and mental forces can weaken or strengthen our self-control.”
Well, how about a cultural muscle too? After all, we’re talking about a cultural trait too! In my research in Colombia, knowing how to manage limits and having reasons to say no help explain lower rates of illegal drug use there, despite plenty of risk factors and access to drugs.
In any case, having some good brain resources can help: “But the researchers also found that restoring glucose levels appears to replenish self-control. Study subjects who drank sugar-sweetened lemonade, which raises glucose levels quickly, performed better on self-control tests than those who drank artificially-sweetened beverages, which have no effect on glucose.” (I knew there was a reason I drank all that Coke, beside the effects of neuromarketing…)
More importantly, for me at least, is the following statement which might provide a link to some of those Colombia results: “Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, says that in lab studies, self-control is boosted when people conjure up powerful memories of the things they value in life. Laughter and positive thoughts also help people perform better on self-control tasks. Dr. Vohs notes that self-control problems occur because people are caught up “in the moment’’ and are distracted from their long-term goals.”
I also want to point out that the blog post has plenty of comments, 125 the time I looked at it. And it provides plenty of fodder for cultural analysis. Here’s the very first one: “Rugged individualism is what made America great, and, all too often, lacking in the present. Will power is part and parcel of the requisite formula for any success, personal or national.”
Here’s the original research:
Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Dianne M. Tice. 2007. The Strength Model of Self-Control. Current Directions in Psychological Science 16 (6), 351–355.
ABSTRACT—Self-control is a central function of the self and an important key to success in life. The exertion of self-control appears to depend on a limited resource. Just as a muscle gets tired from exertion, acts of self-control cause short-term impairments (ego depletion) in subsequent self-control, even on unrelated tasks. Research has supported the strength model in the domains of eating, drinking, spending, sexuality, intelligent thought, making choices, and interpersonal behavior. Motivational or framing factors can temporarily block the deleterious effects of being in a state of ego depletion. Blood glucose is an important component of the energy.