Desires and Impulses – get a grip!

The most important attributes parents should wish for their children are intelligence and self-control.

Research shows that these are the factors that contribute to healthy and productive lives.

Many people think self-esteem is important (including many of the wannabes on TV talent shows) but self-esteem has limited benefits. Basically you need enough but not too much.

So we are talking about the ability to over-ride one response and substitute another, or the ability to change direction towards a standard or idea about how something should be.

Experts say that we self-regulate in 4 areas: our thoughts, our emotions and mood, our impulses, and our performance.

Self-control is like a muscle which can get tired. So people tend to have better self-control in the mornings and this wears off in the evenings or after stressful events.

So most of us sin in the evenings, whether it be breaking diets or having sexual misadventures. If you’ve exercised self-control earlier in the day you are less able to do so later. So you are less likely to persevere with a task or a diet.

The good news is that if you practise self-control you can strengthen the self-control “muscle”. For example  smokers who strengthened their self-control by doing handgrip muscle exercises or by avoiding sweet food were more successful at quitting smoking. So the self-control is pervasive, it doesn’t just apply to the area in which you practise.

For those with an interest in food, willpower is linked to glucose levels. Glucose is important for brain activities and for providing energy. Experiments have shown that when blood glucose levels are low, so is self-control.

Giving people a dose of glucose can increase self-control. Research into judges hearing parole applications showed that parole applications were more successful when the judges were fresh and well-fed but their chance of success dropped off just before meal breaks.

Dieters eat more fattening food when their energy levels, and therefore their willpower or self-control, is also low. Non-dieters are not affected because they are not using energy trying to resist their impulses. So dieters could improve their self-control e.g. by persevering with exercise. This has a double benefit. The exercise will boost their fitness levels and also boost their willpower to help them stick to their diets

This research has many applications: people become more prejudiced, more aggressive, and are more likely to cheat when their energy levels are depleted. So if  you want to read an article by Roy Baumeister and his research on ego depletion, on which this blog was based, click here.

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