Research On How Self-Control Works Could Help You Keep New Year's Resolutions
Many of us have already decided that things will be different in 2018. We’ll eat better, get more exercise, save more money or finally get around to decluttering those closets.
But by the time February rolls around, most of us – perhaps as many as 80 percent of the Americans who make New Year’s resolutions – will have already given up.
Why does our self-control falter, so often leaving us to revert to our old ways? The answer to this question has consequences beyond our waistlines and bank balances.
Psychologists and economists have traditionally fallen into two seemingly contradictory camps about how self-control works. But recent research conducted by my colleagues and me suggests the two sides of self-control might both be at play in each of us.
Self-control: A battery or a snowball?
A well-known series of experiments conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s and ’70s asked children to choose between getting one marshmallow right away or waiting a few minutes and getting two marshmallows. Researchers found that the children who waited patiently, able to resist eating that first marshmallow even when no one else was around, tended to do better throughout life in terms of SAT scores and educational attainment, employment, health and other major measures of success.
For those kids, self-control – not how intelligent, wealthy or educated their families were, or any other identified factor – was the main driver of their later success. In other words, the ability to delay gratification helps in virtually all aspects of life.
But researchers have had trouble nailing down where self-control comes from and how it works. For decades, studies of self-control in short-term decision-making have led to two clear, but seemingly contradictory, results.
One model suggested that self-control is a finite resource that can get used up if you lean on it too heavily, like a battery that loses its charge over time. Someone who resists the urge to eat a doughnut for breakfast, for example, might give in to the temptation of a cookie later in the afternoon. Each little demonstration of self-control throughout the day ends up exhausting the limited reserves.
The alternative model suggested that exercising self-control can help you build up the skill. Not eating the doughnut might increase your motivation and confidence to stick with a healthy diet – like a snowball that gets bigger as it builds momentum rolling downhill.
So is self-control something you run out of when it’s overtaxed? Or is it something that you get better at the more you “practice”? The debate continued as different research groups investigated the question in various ways – and came up with contradictory evidence for which model best explains the inner workings of self-control.
Using biometrics to tell the whole story
Part of the problem has been how hard it is to conduct behavioral research. Traditional methods assume that test subjects fully understand the questions they’re asked and give honest answers. Unfortunately, researchers had no practical way of knowing whether this was the case, or whether they actually measured what they intended to.
But here at the nation’s largest biometrics lab, my Texas A&M colleagues and I figured out a new way to investigate the question that didn’t rely on just what volunteers report to us.
We designed a two-part experiment. First, we asked subjects to focus on a red bull’s-eye at the bottom of a computer screen for either six or 30 minutes. This task requires volunteers to exert self-control – it’s tempting to look away from the boring, unchanging bull’s-eye to the animated video playing elsewhere on the screen.
Then subjects participated in a second laboratory task meant to measure impulsive buying: They could conserve a real US$5 cash endowment or purchase several household items on-site they hadn’t been looking to obtain. The task is analogous to going to the store and buying products that aren’t on your list. The idea is that self-control helps individuals reign in these impulse purchases.