Improving Your Self-control
Self-control of one form or another is a challenge for most people. Describe the basics of this age-old conflict.
Self-control dilemmas typically involve trying to resist something that is immediately tempting, but that we know is not good for us in the long-term. For example, say you need to lose some weight, but you really feel like eating that piece of chocolate cake on the buffet: you are fully aware that doing so conflicts with your long-term goal and that you should restrain yourself; but will you?
Self-control dilemmas also arise in situations where we have to undergo immediate pain or discomfort to achieve a long-term benefit. For instance, everyone knows they should be saving our money for the future, yet we still go shopping, and despite our best intentions we often splurge on minor indulgences. Exercise is another example; we often have to force ourselves to get off the couch and get to the gym, but we know full well that if we do, there will be significant long-term gains.
One tool we use to enforce self-control is willpower. What are some of the key things we know about it?
Willpower is what enables us to say, ‘I am not going to give in: I am going to do what is best for me in the long-term.’ People try to summon willpower in a variety of ways; they may conger up thoughts that bolster the value of long-term actions or suppress thoughts of temptation. The problem is, willpower is a limited resource, and employing it is difficult. As a consequence, as people try to ‘firm up’ their resolve, they may clench their fists, grit their teeth, or scrunch their muscles, reflecting the mental turmoil that comes from combating a self-control dilemma. Some of my colleagues have actually compared willpower to a ‘muscle’ -- something that you can work to strengthen but that can also quickly get depleted.
What is ‘embodied cognition’?
The traditional view amongst philosophers, psychologists and consumer researchers was that the mind is an engine that powers the body and enables us to act, steering us to accomplish whatever we perceive to be in our best interest. But recent evidence on ‘embodied cognition’ is establishing that the body actually influences the mind to a greater degree than has previously been recognized.
The basic idea of embodied cognition is that memories are composed of experiences that are ‘multi-modal’ and spread throughout the body – they are not stored purely in the mind. Cognitions that reside in the mind are just one component of an experience that additionally includes an entire constellation of perceptions, movements and sensations that make up the experience. When people retrieve experiences from their memories, these multi-modal representations ensure that accompanying bodily states are activated along with the associated cognitions.
One important consequence of memories being multi-modal is that, not only do cognitions generate accompanying bodily responses, but those bodily responses can also independently generate the associated cognitions and influence judgment. For instance, while research shows that the solution of brainteasers involving spatial relations is accompanied by eye movements, it also shows that eye movements can significantly improve the rate at which one can solve such brainteasers. Studies also show that standing upright (vs. slumping over), which often occurs when one feels powerful, can also evoke sensations of power; nodding (vs. shaking) one's head can increase how much one agrees with a persuasive message; merely simulating a smile (vs. a frown) can elicit positive emotion; and mere exposure to sunlight can induce positive feelings, when then influence our actions.
Describe how your research integrated the findings on self-regulation and embodied cognition.
Given the findings that cognition is embodied to a certain extent, my colleague Iris Hung and I felt that the body might also be instrumental in self-regulation. That is, if self-control is a battle that involves strengthening willpower to withstand immediate discomfort or resist immediate pleasure to attain long-term benefits, might firming one's muscles also help to firm willpower? We felt it was entirely possible that in our minds, we associate ‘firming up’ with willpower – that it is an automatic reaction to a self-control dilemma. The question we had was, could firming up also help us recruit willpower and self-control?
You and Prof. Hung conducted five experiments to test your hypotheses. Describe the highlights of your research.
In one study, we found that when people clenched their fist, they were more likely to make a donation to Haitian Earthquake Relief. That was very interesting to us, because you might assume that clenching one’s fist would be associated with less donations; but here, people who firmed their muscles while viewing very unpleasant images of poor, devastated children opened their hearts and gave significantly more money than those whose fists were not clenched. A gut negative reaction and feeling of discomfort was overcome, and they did something good. Basically, their willpower was summoned to say, ‘I have to deal with this. It’s good for me to deal with it.’