Resisting Temptations: Part I

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute.

Has this ever happened to you?  You are at work minding your own business.  Suddenly someone brings in a plate full of your favorite sweets and plops it down on the table next to you.  All day the sweets sit next to you.  Tempting you.  Calling you.  One by one you look on as co-workers come by and take their choice.  But, remembering you are trying to eat healthier, you manage to resist eating even just one.  But, then you get home and see the chocolate cake you made last night sitting on the counter.  Before you know it, you have eaten over half the cake and you are left wondering, “How did I lose control”?

Baumeister and colleagues (1998) might be able to shed some light on why you were so good at resisting the tempting sweets at work, but completely lost control once you got home.  Their research focuses on self-control and why people tend to “lose” it.

Self-control is pretty much what keeps us in-check in our daily lives.  We use self-control to stop ourselves from stealing that awesome new lawn ornament from our neighbors, yelling at our boss, or driving like a maniac through traffic.  But according to Baumeister and colleagues, we can only use our self-control for so long before it gives out.  This is what is called the Strength Model of Self-Control, which basically says that our self-control is like a muscle that can be fatigued with overuse.

In one experiment, people were asked to participate in a taste test after they had not eaten for at least three hours.  They were led into a room filled with the smell of fresh baked cookies and two foods sitting on the table; radishes (easy to resist, hard to eat) and fresh baked chocolate chip cookies (hard to resist, easy to eat).  Participants were then asked to eat only the radishes or only the cookies while resisting the other food.  After a 5 minute taste test, each participant was asked to solve some puzzles, which they did not know were impossible to solve.  The amount of time they took to try to solve these puzzles was recorded.

What Baumeister and colleagues saw was that the people who were asked to resist the fresh baked cookies and eat the radishes gave up faster trying to solve the impossible puzzles than the people who were allowed to eat the cookies but resist the radishes.  This led them to think that people who are faced with highly tempting situations (like a plate full of delicious sweets) but have to resist, might not be able to resist temptations later on (like eating half a chocolate cake when you get home).

They found similar results when people had to resist other things, like resisting the urge to cry during a sad movie, or make a decision to do something.   So the next time you are left wondering why you lost control, think back to all the things you resisted during the day and you may find your answer.  This, however, is not an excuse to lose all control.  Next week we’ll discuss how “exercising” your self-control muscle can help you resist that chocolate cake.

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