There are many situations in life where you’d like to exhibit high levels of self-control. When the dessert menu arrives to the table, for instance. Or when you’re handed that second drink at a party. Or when you’re asked if you want to go to shopping at the mall. You feel that internal tug-of-war, right?
As it turns out, the more self-control you want to have, the harder it can be to actually master, according to a new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The research measured more than 600 participants’ ability to display self-control in tasks that either required a lot of it or very little. Researchers both measured and manipulated participants’ desire for self-control in various settings; they either determined the subjects’ raw desire by way of a scale, or touted the benefits of self-control prior to testing.
Ultimately, they found that, in either condition, the men and women who wanted more self-control found it much harder to display when the task called for it. This was true whether participants’ tended to show a lot of self-control on average, or they didn’t.
Now you’d think if you actively wanted more self-control, you’d be able to call upon your willpower, right? Not the case. In actuality, researchers believe that when you encounter a tough obstacle that might require a lot of self-control—in the face of that ice cream, when you see that cute dress in the window—the simple desire for more means that you already feel like you don’t have enough. This secret negative belief undermines your ability to pass on the chocolate or put away your credit card.
How the Human Motivation System Works
They often say, “Control is an illusion.” So, is self-control also an illusion of sorts? Fortunately, no, but it’s certainly hard, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of the book Brain Briefs. The best way to think about this phenomenon is through the human motivational system.
Markman says human motivation is two-fold. “There is a ‘Go System’ that engages goals and drives you to act,” he explains, “and then a ‘Stop System’ that you use to inhibit actions that the Go System has engaged in, but that you no longer want to perform. The Go System operates automatically. It can be engaged by habits, by tempting sources in the environment, or by deliberate thought. The Stop System is effortful, though.”
According to Markman, there are many factors that can undermine the functioning of the Stop System, including stress and alcohol. “If you believe that your effort to stop yourself will fail, then you may not be willing to try,” says Markman.
Since self-control is so difficult, Markman says the best way to feel like you have more of it involves creating the new instead of halting the old. “The Stop System is best used in small doses,” he says. “When you are trying to make a large-scale change in your behavior, like healthy eating or checking your email less often, the best strategy is to reprogram your Go System rather than relying on the Stop System. Hoping that the Stop System will save you all the time is like pressing the throttle and gas pedals of your car at the same time and hoping that you won’t move.”
How to (Really) Gain More Self-Control
Markman suggests a mindset shift. “The best way to have self-control is to develop a new set of habits that are more in-line with your long-term goals,” he explains, which is an overarching message of his book Smart Change. This might mean replacing your ice cream with a healthy sweet like fruit, or leaving your shopping splurges to pre-determined, once-a-month “fun” buys. (You can decide your new strategies.)
That doesn’t mean your Stop System is hopeless to call upon, however. “When you do need self-control to avoid temptations, there are several things you can do,” Markman says. “One is to try to make undesirable behaviors more difficult to perform.” If you can’t stop eating sweets at night, stop stocking your fridge with ice cream or go for a walk whenever temptation hits. You can also ask a friend to be your on-call support system, to talk you out of your temptation and into your long-term goal.
Ultimately, you get to decide on your (new and improved) Go System habits and your Stop System strategies. Choose the ones that appeal to you.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.