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Posts Tagged ‘self-control

Bothered by Negative, Unwanted Thoughts? Just Throw Them Away – Association for Psychological Science

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Bothered by Negative, Unwanted Thoughts? Just Throw Them Away – Association for Psychological Science.

Written by huehueteotl

November 27, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Too Many Choices – Good Or Bad – Can Be Mentally Exhausting

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Ever tried to place an order in a Starbucks? Then you know what this is about. Until you get some average quality coffee, you have spent more time with the employee choosing between options, than a full account of his major biographical events would have needed – given that she or he is young,  as is the case most of the time. Each day, we are bombarded with options — at the local coffee shop, at work, in stores or on the TV at home. Do you want a double-shot soy latte, a caramel macchiato or simply a tall house coffee for your morning pick-me-up” Having choices is typically thought of as a good thing. Maybe not, say researchers who found we are more fatigued and less productive when faced with a plethora of choices.

Researchers from several universities have determined that even though humans’ ability to weigh choices is remarkably advantageous, it can also come with some serious liabilities. People faced with numerous choices, whether good or bad, find it difficult to stay focused enough to complete projects, handle daily tasks or even take their medicine.

Researchers conducted seven experiments involving 328 participants and 58 consumers at a shopping mall. In the laboratory experiments, some participants were asked to make choices about consumer products, college courses or class materials. Other participants did not have to make decisions but simply had to consider the options in front of them.

The scientists then asked each group to participate in one of two unpleasant tasks. Some were told to finish a healthy but ill-tasting drink (akin to taking ones medicine). Other participants were told to put their hands in ice water. The tasks were designed to test how the previous act of choosing, or not choosing, affected peoples’ ability to stay on task and maintain behaviors aimed at reaching a goal.

Researchers found that the participants who earlier had made choices had more trouble staying focused and finishing the disagreeable but goal-focused tasks compared to the participants who initially did not have to make choices.

In other experiments, participants were given math problems to practice for an upcoming test. The participants who had to make important choices involving coursework spent less time solving the math problems and more time engaging in other distractions such as playing video games or reading magazines, compared to participants who were not asked to make choices prior to that point. The participants who made choices also got more math problems wrong than participants not faced with decisions.

To further buttress their laboratory findings, the researchers conducted a field test at a shopping mall. The shoppers reported how much decision-making they had done while shopping that day and then were asked to solve simple arithmetic problems. The researchers found that the more choices the shoppers had made earlier in the day, the worse they performed on the math problems. The authors note they controlled for how long the participants had been shopping, and for several demographic categories such as age, race, ethnicity and gender.

Kathleen D. Vohs, PhD, the study’s lead author and a member of the University of Minnesota’s marketing department, concluded that making choices apparently depletes a precious resource within the human mind. “Maintaining one’s focus while trying to solve problems or completing an unpleasant task was much harder for those who had made choices compared to those who had not,” says Vohs. “This pattern was found in the laboratory, classroom and shopping mall. Having to make the choice was the key. It did not matter if the researchers told them to make choices, or if it was a spontaneously made choice, or if making the choice had consequences or not.”

But what about making fun choices” How does that affect our mental acuity” In their last experiment, researchers determined that making a few enjoyable decisions, such as spending four minutes selecting items for a gift registry, was shown to be less mentally draining than when participants spent 12 minutes doing the same task. In other words, even if people are having fun making decisions, their cognitive functions are still being depleted with every choice they make.

Vohs says these experiments provide evidence that making choices, as opposed to just thinking about options, is what is especially taxing. “There is a significant shift in the mental programming that is made at the time of choosing, whether the person acts on it at that time or sometime in the future. Therefore, simply the act of choosing can cause mental fatigue,” says Vohs. “Making choices can be difficult and taxing, and there is a personal price to choosing.”

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 94, No. 5

Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control: A Limited-Resource Account of Decision Making, Self-Regulation, and Active Initiative.

Kathleen D. Vohs, PhD, and Noelle M. Nelson, PhD, University of Minnesota; Roy Baumeister, PhD, Florida State University; Brandon J. Schmeichel, PhD, Texas A&M University; Jean M. Twenge, PhD, San Diego State University; Dianne M. Tice, PhD, Florida State University

The current research tested the hypothesis that making many choices impairs subsequent self-control.
Drawing from a limited-resource model of self-regulation and executive function, the authors hypothesized
that decision making depletes the same resource used for self-control and active responding. In 4
laboratory studies, some participants made choices among consumer goods or college course options,
whereas others thought about the same options without making choices. Making choices led to reduced
self-control (i.e., less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination,
and less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations). A field study then found that reduced
self-control was predicted by shoppers’ self-reported degree of previous active decision making. Further
studies suggested that choosing is more depleting than merely deliberating and forming preferences about
options and more depleting than implementing choices made by someone else and that anticipating the
choice task as enjoyable can reduce the depleting effect for the first choices but not for many choices.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at

Written by huehueteotl

April 15, 2008 at 10:07 am

Subconscious Signals Can Trigger Drug Craving

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Using a brain imaging technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists have discovered that cocaine-related images trigger the emotional centers of the brains of patients addicted to drugs — even when the subjects are unaware they’ve seen anything.
Cocaine patients were shown photos such as these. The 24 randomly-presented 33 msec targets in each of four categories (cocaine, sexual, aversive and neutral, interspersed with grey-screen nulls) were immediately followed by a 467 msec neutral “masking” stimulus”. Under these conditions, the 33 msec stimuli can escape conscious detection. (Credit: Childress AR, Ehrman RN, Wang Z, Li Y, Sciortino N, et al.)

A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Dr. Anna Rose Childress and Dr. Charles O’Brien, showed cocaine patients photos of drug-related cues like crack pipes and chunks of cocaine. The images flashed by in just 33 milliseconds — so quickly that the patients were not consciously aware of seeing them. Nonetheless, the unseen images stimulated activity in the limbic system, a brain network involved in emotion and reward, which has been implicated in drug-seeking and craving.

“This is the first evidence that cues outside one’s awareness can trigger rapid activation of the circuits driving drug-seeking behavior,” said NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow. “Patients often can’t pinpoint when or why they start craving drugs. Understanding how the brain initiates that overwhelming desire for drugs is essential to treating addiction.”

To verify that the patterns of brain activity triggered by the subconscious cues reflected the patients’ feelings about drugs, Childress and her colleagues gave the patients a different test two days later, allowing them to look longer at the drug images. The patients who demonstrated the strongest brain response to unseen cues in the fMRI experiment also felt the strongest positive association with visible drug cues. Childress notes, “It’s striking that the way people feel about these drug-related images is accurately predicted by how strongly their brains respond within just 33 milliseconds.”

Childress and her colleagues also found that the regions of the brain activated by drug images overlapped substantially with those activated by sexual images. This finding supports the scientific consensus that addictive drugs usurp brain regions that recognize natural rewards needed for survival, like food and sex.

According to Childress, these results could improve drug treatment strategies. “We have a brain hard-wired to appreciate rewards, and cocaine and other drugs of abuse latch onto this system. We are looking at the potential for new medications that reduce the brain’s sensitivity to these conditioned drug cues and would give patients a fighting chance to manage their urges.”

PLoS ONE 3(1): e1506. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001506

Prelude to Passion: Limbic Activation by “UnseenDrug and Sexual Cues

Anna Rose Childress, Ronald N. Ehrman, Ze Wang, Yin Li, Nathan Sciortino, Jonathan Hakun, William Jens, Jesse Suh, John Listerud, Kathleen Marquez, Teresa Franklin, Daniel Langleben, John Detre, Charles P. O’Brien



The human brain responds to recognizable signals for sex and for rewarding drugs of abuse by activation of limbic reward circuitry. Does the brain respond in similar way to such reward signals even when they are “unseen”, i.e., presented in a way that prevents their conscious recognition? Can the brain response to “unseen” reward cues predict the future affective response to recognizable versions of such cues, revealing a link between affective/motivational processes inside and outside awareness?

Methodology/Principal Findings

We exploited the fast temporal resolution of event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test the brain response to “unseen” (backward-masked) cocaine, sexual, aversive and neutral cues of 33 milliseconds duration in male cocaine patients (n = 22). Two days after scanning, the affective valence for visible versions of each cue type was determined using an affective bias (priming) task. We demonstrate, for the first time, limbic brain activation by “unseen” drug and sexual cues of only 33 msec duration. Importantly, increased activity in an large interconnected ventral pallidum/amygdala cluster to the “unseen” cocaine cues strongly predicted future positive affect to visible versions of the same cues in subsequent off-magnet testing, pointing both to the functional significance of the rapid brain response, and to shared brain substrates for appetitive motivation within and outside awareness.


These findings represent the first evidence that brain reward circuitry responds to drug and sexual cues presented outside awareness. The results underscore the sensitivity of the brain to “unseen” reward signals and may represent the brain’s primordial signature for desire. The limbic brain response to reward cues outside awareness may represent a potential vulnerability in disorders (e.g., the addictions) for whom poorly-controlled appetitive motivation is a central feature.

Written by huehueteotl

February 6, 2008 at 9:37 am

Got Sugar? Glucose Affects Self-Control

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New research from a lab at Florida State University reveals that self-control takes fuel– literally. When we exercise it, resisting temptations to misbehave, our fuel tank is depleted, making subsequent efforts at self-control more difficult.


Florida State psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues Kathleen D. Vohs, University of Minnesota, and Dianne M. Tice, Florida State, showed this with an experiment using the Stroop task, a famous way of testing strength of self-control. Participants in this task are shown color words that are printed in different-colored ink (like the word red printed in blue font), and are told to name the color of the ink, not the word. Baumeister found that when participants perform multiple self-control tasks like the Stroop test in a row, they do worse over time. Thus, the ability to control ourselves wanes as it is exercised.

Moreover, Baumeister and colleagues found that the fuel that powers this ability turns out to be one of the same things that fuels our muscles: sugar, in the form of glucose.

The researchers measured the blood glucose levels of participants before either engaging in another self-control task or a task that did not involve self-control. They found that the group performing the self-control task suffered depletion in glucose afterward. Furthermore, in another experiment, two groups performed the Stroop task two times each, drinking one of two sweetened beverages in between. The control group drank lemonade with Splenda, a sugar-free sweetener; the test group got lemonade sweetened with real sugar. The sugar group performed better than the Splenda group on their second Stroop test, presumably because their blood sugar had been replenished.

The results as reported in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, suggest the possibility of psychological interventions for helping people achieve greater self-control. For one thing, like muscles, self-control may be able to be strengthened through exercise. Results so far are inconsistent, Baumeister says, and some regimens work better than others, but he envisions that greater understanding of the biological and psychological underpinnings of our ability to control ourselves will have important real-world application for people in the self-control business, such as coaches, therapists, teachers, and parents. self_control_graphic.gif

Current Directions in Psychological Science, Volume 16, Issue 6, Page 351-355, Dec 2007, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00534.x
The Strength Model of Self-Control
Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Dianne M. Tice (2007)

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.

How To Say “No”

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“Self-control refers to the mental energy individuals use to regulate their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.” Drug abuse, crime and obesity all have one thing in common–people’s failure to control their behavior in the face of temptation. While the ability to control and restrain our impulses is one of the defining features of the human animal, its failure is one of the central problems of human society. So, why do we so often lack this crucial ability?

The authors assume, that as human beings, we have limited resources to control ourselves, and all acts of control draw from this same source. Therefore, when using this resource in one domain, for example, keeping to a diet, we are more likely to run out of this resource in a different domain, like studying hard. Once these resources are exhausted, our ability to control ourselves is diminished. In this depleted state, the dieter is more likely to eat chocolate, the student to watch TV, and the politician to accept a bribe.

In a recent study, Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto Scarborough and colleague Jennifer N. Gutsell offer an account of what is happening in the brain when our vices get the better of us.

Inzlicht and Gutsell asked participants to suppress their emotions while watching an upsetting movie. The idea was to deplete their resources for self-control. The participants reported their ability to suppress their feelings on a scale from one to nine. Then, they completed a Stroop task, which involves naming the color of printed words (i.e. saying red when reading the word “green” in red font), yet another task that requires a significant amount of self-control.

The researchers found that those who suppressed their emotions performed worse on the Stroop task, indicating that they had used up their resources for self-control while holding back their tears during the film.

An EEG, performed during the Stroop task, confirmed these results. Normally, when a person deviates from their goals (in this case, wanting to read the word, not the color of the font), increased brain activity occurs in a part of the frontal lobe called the anterior cingulate cortex, which alerts the person that they are off-track. The researchers found weaker activity occurring in this brain region during the Stroop task in those who had suppressed their feelings. In other words, after engaging in one act of self-control this brain system seems to fail during the next act.

Tips How To Say No

  • We say “yes”to others and ourselves because we want to please or avoid discomfort. But when eventually we can’t continue, we feel guilty. All parties suffer, anyway. Recognize that a desire to please, as much as discomfort anxietey often prevents us from saying no.
  • Stick to your plan. If you have a written set of goals and strategies, this gives you a reason to stick to your course.
  • When someone persists, repeat your position, perhaps in a slightly different way. (“As I already said, our policy is to donate to charities that help children only.”)
  • Make sure you understand exactly what is being asked of you before you respond. Perhaps the task is more time consuming than you thought. On the other hand, it may not take much effort at all.
  • Excel at just a few things, rather than being just average at many. Don’t try to do everything. (Remember self-control is an effort…)
  • You have a right to say no.
  • Be polite, but firm in saying no, even with yourself. You only build false hopes with wishy-washy responses. For instance, the phrase “I’ll try to be there” in response to a party invitation is giving yourself an excuse to avoid a commitment. It doesn’t do anyone any favours.
  • When a superior asks you to do a new urgent task;
  • Remind her that you are working on other projects that she has already identified as top priorities
  • Ask for help in deciding where the new task should fall on the list of priorities
  • Point out that you might be able to do everything, but not to the usual high standards that are expected.
  • Some experts recommend keeping your answer short. This way, you can say no without feeling the need for a lengthy justification. (“I’m sorry, I’m not available that night.”) On the other hand, others say that giving a longer answer with reasons reinforces your credibility. Let the situation decide.
  • Provide suggestions or alternatives to the person who is asking. (“I can’t do that task today, but how about next week,” or “How about asking John instead?”)
  • When in doubt, it’s easier to say no now, then change your mind to a yes later, rather than the other way around.

And What when You Have to Say Yes?

  • Sometimes, saying “yes” or giving in is simply unavoidable. Here are some techniques to use:
  • Agree to the request this time, but ask how to plan better for the next time.
  • Tell them or yourself yes, but keep in mind, that you or them owe you one.
  • Take control by coming back with a timetable. For instance, say, “by the end of the week.”
  • Put a tough condition on your indulging / agreement. “If it would only take an hour, I’d be able to help, but I can’t put more than that.”

Psychological Science Volume 18—Number 11, 933 – 937

Running on empty: Neural signals for self-control failure.

Inzlicht, M., & Gutsell, J. N.

ABSTRACT—Past research shows that self-control is limited and becomes depleted after initial exertions. This study examined the neural processes underlying self-control failure by testing whether controlled, effortful behavior impairs subsequent attempts at control by depleting the neural system associated with conflict monitoring. Subjects either watched an emotional movie normally or tried to suppress their emotions while watching the movie; they then completed an ostensibly unrelated Stroop task while
electroencephalographic activity was recorded. The errorrelated negativity (ERN)—a waveform associated with activity in the anterior cingulate—was measured to determine whether prior regulatory exertion constrained the conflict-monitoring system. Compared with subjects in the control condition, those who suppressed their emotions performed worse on the Stroop task, and this deficit was mediated by weaker ERN signals. These results offer a neural account for the self-regulatory-strength model and demonstrate the utility of the social neuroscience approach.

Written by huehueteotl

October 11, 2007 at 12:40 pm