Is Self-Discpline Depletable?

Arguably the first research on the depletion of self-control was performed by Professor Roy Baumeister in at. He called it “Ego-Depletion” to honour Sigmund Freud, who was the last scientist who considered a connection between willpower and energy.

Baumeister found out that the power to self-control is limited by sending people, who haven’t had a breakfast, into a room which smelled of freshly baked cookies. They were advised that the study they are taking part is about different tastes, so they didn’t know that the study was really about self-control. When they entered the room, there were plates with cookies, and radishes. One part of the group was allowed to eat the cookies, whereas the other part of the group was only allowed to eat radish. Each participant was left alone in the room, but was observed. The group of the hungry radish eaters, were tempted with the plates of cookies. Thinking they were unobserved, they really fought with the temptation of eating a cookie. Some took one cookie from the plate to smell on it, but all of them only ate their radishes. So the radish-eaters had to exert self-control, whereas the cookie-eaters didn’t have to. Both groups where then led to another room to tackle a geometrical problem. This geometrical problem is unsolvable and solely constructed to test how long a test subject would persist on resolving it. So it was yet another experiment on self-control. That is: how long could they control themselves to put their efforts in solving the puzzle, before giving up on it. And surprisingly it turned out that those who had to eat the radish, and therefore had to exert self-control beforehand, were giving up on the puzzle much quicker than those who had eaten the cookie and hence not exerted self-control already. To exclude that the cookie itself could have an influence of the outcome of the experiment, there was also a control group, which did the quiz without eating anything beforehand. The cookie-group and the control group had similar results.

This experiment has been repeated in different ways over and over again. Sometimes with even more than two incidences on which self-control had to be applied. And it always turned out that self-control is a resource that is depleting. 

So if you are on a diet and confronted with a cookie that you don’t eat, you have stripped yourself from a part of your self-control. If another temptation occurs after this, you will have a much harder time, resisting it. And if the amount of temptations gets too high, your self-control is gone and you won’t be able to resist anymore.

Baumeister also found out that there appears to be a reserve of self-control hidden somewhere in our brains. The experiment that proved this was, created in a way that after the first round, where one group had to exert self-control and the other one didn’t have to, the group was made to resolve mathematical questions. Again, the radish-group was giving up much quicker than the cookie-group. However, when the radish-group was informed that there is a monetary prize for answering the questions in the second round, they managed to come to par with the cookie-group. In yet another variation of the experiment, a third round of self-control was added after the mathematical test. Again, before the second round, the radish-group was informed that there would be a monetary reward, and again they performed as well as the cookie-group. They didn’t know though that there was a third round and that the performance in the third round would also be a deciding factor on the monetary reward. And interestingly, their self-control fell again under the performance of the cookie-group, as their secret reserve was used up in the second round already.    

What was also found out is that there is only one resource of self-control for all topics of our life. See, we like to think of self-control as that feature that comes into play when we are faced with tempting decisions, such as, whether to eat the Apple or the Fudge. Or whether we will do that sales-call or sit at home, watching Netflix. But actually we have to control ourselves in many other situations of our lives as well. When we talk with somebody and want to make sure that we don’t hurt their feelings for example, we need control what we say and how we say it. Or when the alarm clock comes off and we are faced with the choice of hitting the snooze button or get up immediately. Studies have proven the depletion of self-control in many different surroundings. As an example, for one study, groups watched an emotional movie, one was instructed not to show their emotions at all, another one was instructed to exaggerate every emotion they encounter, and the third group was just allowed to watch the movie without any restrictions. Both the groups where the viewers where instructed to exert self-control showed a ego-depletion, whereas the one without instructions, did not. In another experiment, the groups were instructed to exert self-control on their thoughts by suppressing some of them. They also showed self-control depletion. That casts quite a different light on the “power of thoughts” that is so often recommended in the self-help literature, doesn’t it? All of that which is not our normal self, reduces our amount of self-control for the next temptation or situation in which we feel we have to behave in a certain way.

Unless, self-control can restore itself – and this is going to be a finding which will be especially difficult for all those who want to lose weight. Baumeister’s studies found out by coincidence that glucose can restore our ability to self-control. During one of their experiments, they gave one group a tempting calorie rich milkshake and the other group a low-fat, but sugar-rich drink instead of the radishes and the cookies . It turned out that this time both groups were performing as well. This led to the conclusion that the brain needs glucose to restore the ability to restore willpower. What some people might not know is that our whole body works basically on glucose. Everything we can digest, is in one way or the other transformed into sugar in our body. This is one of the reasons, why when doing an Atkins diet (a low carb diet), many people are feeling weak, experience headache and sometimes even feeling outright ill in the first few days. It’s simply when the body runs out of sugar and starts to enter into ketosis, which simply means, it uses the fat stored in the body to create the glucose itself.

The problem with sugar is that when it spikes, the body releases insulin, to fight against too much sugar going into your blood, which would kill you. Because your body is truly a wonder of nature, it doesn’t simply destroy that valuable energy. After all, the body is a bit outdated, and comes from a time where overflowing amounts of energy were readily, and temptingly available at every corner. So the release of insulin leads to the sugar being transformed to fat and is then being deposited in your body  for possible famines in the future. WHY IS BLOOD SUGAR LOWER AFTER INSULIN RELEASE? Now with less sugar in the blood, you quickly get another urge to consume something sweet to get quick glucose into the body. So rather than carrying a bag of sugar with you from now on, it’s best to keep the body well fed throughout the day and to not skip breakfast. When you are faced with especially challenging situations, where your willpower has been drained, some quick sugars, such as a banana, or even a small sugary drink can help you to regain your willpower. 

Now, knowing that our willpower is vanishing for each time that we have to use it, unevitably leads to the question, whether there are ways to increase it in total. So that we don’t have to take that sip of lemonade each time a rude customer makes us want to shout right back at him.