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You Wear Me Out: Self-control Is Exhausting

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Exerting self-control is exhausting. In fact, using self-control in one situation impairs our ability to use self-control in subsequent, even unrelated, situations. What about thinking of other people exerting self-control?

Earlier research has shown that imagining actions can cause the same reactions as if we were actually performing them (e.g., simulating eating a disgusting food results in a revolting face, even if no food has been eaten) and psychologists Joshua M. Ackerman and John A. Bargh from Yale University, along with Noah J. Goldstein and Jenessa R. Shapiro from the University of California, Los Angeles explored what affect thinking about other people’s self-control has on our own thoughts and behavior.

Participants were presented with a story about a hungry waiter who was surrounded by delicious food, but was not allowed to sample any, for fear of being fired. Half of the participants simply read the story and the other half were told to imagine themselves in the waiter’s shoes. Next, all of the participants were shown images of mid- to high-priced items (e.g., cars and TVs) and were to indicate how much they would pay for them. In a follow-up experiment, some of the participants read the same story and others read a similar story in which the waiter was not hungry and did not have to use self-control. Just as in the first experiment, some of the participants read the story while others imagined themselves as the waiter. All of these volunteers then participated in a word game and a memory task.

The results, reported in Psychological Science reveal that the participants who imagined themselves in the waiter’s position were more willing to spend greater amounts of money on the luxury items – they had exhausted their capacity for self-control and restraint, leading them to spend more money. In the follow-up experiment, the volunteers who read and imagined the story of the waiter who was not hungry performed much better on the word game and memory task. Overall, the group that imagined themselves as the waiter from the original story, who exercised self-control and did not eat any food, performed the worst on the word game and memory tasks.

These findings suggest that our own self-control can be worn out simply by mentally simulating another person acting with self-control. The authors note, for example, that imagining someone else’s self-control “could result in small breakdowns of self-control, such as employees speaking out improperly during a meeting, to catastrophic ones, such as police officers responding to an emotionally charged encounter with deadly force.”

Psychological Science, 2009; 20 (3): 326 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02290.x
You Wear Me Out: The Vicarious Depletion of Self-Control.
Joshua M. Ackerman, Noah J. Goldstein, Jenessa R. Shapiro, and John A. Bargh

Address correspondence to Joshua Ackerman, Yale University, Department of Psychology, P.O. Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205, e-mail: joshua.ackerman@yale.edu.

ABSTRACT—Acts of self-control may deplete an individual’s self-regulatory resources. But what are the consequences of perceiving other people’s use of self-control? Mentally simulating the actions of others has been found to elicit psychological effects consistent with the actual performance of those actions. Here, we consider how simulating versus merely perceiving the use of willpower can affect self-control abilities. In Study 1, participants who simulated the perspective of a person exercising self-control exhibited less restraint over spending on consumer products than did other participants. In Study 2, participants who took the perspective of a person using self-control exerted less willpower on an unrelated lexical generation task than did participants who took the perspective of a person who did not use self-control. Conversely, participants who merely read about another person’s self-control exerted more willpower than did those who read about actions not requiring self-control. These findings suggest that the actions of other people may either deplete or boost one’s own self-control, depending on whether one mentally simulates those actions or merely perceives them.

Written by huehueteotl

April 7, 2009 at 7:55 am

Posted in Psychology

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