Science Behind Self-Control

It’s the holiday season & we all know that it’s getting very difficult resisting those cookies that seem to be at every work meeting or on the kitchen coutner at home… Why is this?

We have 2 independant systems of our brain working at all times: an emotional side & a rational side.   

A wonderful analogy used by University of Virgina psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that our emotional side can be compared to an elephant while our rational side is its rider.  Sitting atop the elephant, the rider has the reins & seems to be the leader but in fact, the rider’s control is precarious because the rider is so small relative to the elephant.  Therefore, in a situation where the rider and the elephant are in a tug-of-war, the rider will not win.  He simply gets exhausted.

To understand this a little better, check out this study:

A group of college students reported to a lab a bit hungry (they’d been asked not to eat for 3 hours beforehand).  On a table was a bowl of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, and right next to the cookies…a bowl of radishes.  Half the participants were asked to eat two or three cookies, but no radishes.  The other half were asked to eat at least two or three radishes but no cookies.  Following this, all participants were presented with a series of brain puzzles (the researchers wanted to see how long the college students would persist in a difficult, frusterating task before they gave up).  The “untempted” students, who had not had to resist eating the cookies spent 19 minutes on the task making 34 well intentioned attempts to solve the problem.  The radish eaters gave up after only 8 minutes and had only 19 solution attempts. 

This study, lead by University of Florida social psychologist Roy Baumeister found that SELF CONTROL IS AN EXHAUSTIBLE RESOURCE.  Why did the radish eaters quit so easily? Well, they simply ran out of self control.  Compare it to doing bench presses at the gym.  The first one is easy when your muscles are fresh but with each repitition, your muscles get more & more exhausted until you can’t lift the bar anymore.  So whereas the radish eaters drained their self-control by resisting the cookies, the cookie-eaters had a fresh “rider” who was able to fight off the elephant for 19 minutes. 

This makes perfect sense as to why it’s so hard to resist the temptation of all those cookies and sweets that seem to always be around us during the holidays.  If we are able to avoid the sweets at work but go home to yet another tray of sugar cookies sitting on the kitchen counter, chances our by that point our “rider” is going to be exhausted and the “elephant” will win. 

Although it’s not always easy, try to do everything you can not to put yourself in these situations this holiday season so as to not wear your “rider” out. 

…And I promise, I’m not trying to tempt you with the picture.

Happy Holidays! : )



One thought on “Science Behind Self-Control”

  1. Thanks for posting this article Nicole! To maintain a year-round “beach body,” one has to watch those temptiong Christmas sugary treats. I can go the entire day without touching a drop of sugar. But near the end of the night, my self-control vanishes. That’s when I end up eating the sugary crap that I’ve managed to dodge all day long, blowing my diet. Bye-bye six-pack abs.

    Knowing the underlying mechanism will prove helpful. I’ve been experimenting with the Paleo diet recently. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about that topic.

    Merry Christmas Nicole and friends!


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