The Science of Self-control – use it or lose it

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A survey of almost 600 adults by the American Psychological Association found that 93% had set themselves behavioural change goals for 2012.

This was even though fewer than half had actually succeeded in maintaining goals they had set the  previous year

Most goals were health-or finance-related. When asked what obstacles they faced  1 in 4 said lack of willpower although 70% optimistically thought it could be improved.

Building on the work of Walter Mischel (famous for the marshmallow experiments) and Roy Baumeister among others, the APA’s report on the research makes the case that willpower is ike a muscle. Short-term demands weaken it but using it more leads to better self-control in the long run.

Baumeister says that behavioural change needs three components: the motivation to change, monitoring change, and willpower, whilst Mischel’s experiments highlight the need to plan ahead and avoid temptation.

The report also recommends ways of developing willpower including keeping your blood sugar levels balanced through eating and snacking healthily as some research suggests low glucose level weaken self-control. Other research found it was merely necessary to wash your mouth out with an energy drink to boost self-conrol i.e. the carbohydrates boost willpower through affecting motivation not nutrition levels.

Another method is using IF – THEN statements: if  I’m offered a cupcake then I’ll eat a raw carrot, or if I’m offered a glass of beer then I’ll have a fruit juice instead.

The APA’s CEO said; “it’s reassuring to know that even though people view a lack of willpower as a hurdle in their quest  to live healthier lives they believe that they can learn the skills they need to change their lifestyles”.

Research shows that setting goals, monitoring progress, and seeking support can be very effective in helping people increase their self-control and lead healthier lives.

It also has implications in work and management. Baumeister’s model is not too dissimilar to Beckhard’s change management equation and self-control is a key element in developing emotional intelligence (EI).

Read more about APA report here


2 thoughts on “The Science of Self-control – use it or lose it

    Katina Fullman said:
    June 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm


    Estelle Rottman said:
    June 28, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Beautiful site

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