Why is self-control more difficult at times?
Have you ever noticed how hard it is to study for a test or balance your budget when you’re dieting or starting a rigorous exercise program? Do you find yourself eating a lot of donuts in the break room when you tell yourself you don’t have time for lunch and you’ll just have a fast snack to tide you over. Only that fast snack is chips from the vending machine or a latte with a mountain of whipped cream on top?
As you work to make a deadline, racing against the clock, hunching over the computer, your hand and mouth have a life of their own—reaching into the bag of chips, happily crunching, getting crumbs and salt crystals all over your keyboard—until you suddenly discover all the chips are gone and you’d intended to eat only half the bag!
The ability to make decisions, take responsibility, and inhibit behavior requires volition or self-control.
Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice (1998) decided to investigate whether or not some form of energy or strength is needed to exercise self-control. 67 psychology students signed up for a study on taste perception (or so they thought). Participants were told to skip a meal before the experiment and not eat anything for at least three hours before. As they were waiting in the laboratory room, chocolate chip cookies were baking in a small oven. As the students smelled the delicious aroma of baking chocolate, two foods were placed on the table before them: a bowl of radishes and a stack of chocolate chip cookies and some chocolate candy.
The experimenter explained that chocolates and radishes had been selected for the taste perception study because the foods had highly distinctive tastes. Participants had already been placed into the “radish” group or the “chocolate” group. Students in the radish group were asked to eat two or three radishes and students in the chocolate group were asked to eat two or three cookies or a handful of the candy. They could only eat the food assigned to them.
Then participants were told to wait 15 minutes “to allow the sensory memory of the food to fade” and asked to work on a task, presented as if it were a task that was not related to eating radishes or cookies. The task asked students to trace a geometric figure without retracing any lines and without taking the pencil off the paper. They were allowed to try this task over and over and they could stop before the puzzle was finished by ringing a bell on the table. The participants did not know that the test figures were IMPOSSIBLE to solve. A final questionnaire asked students how tired they felt after the tracing task.
The results showed that students who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolates were more tired than those who got to eat chocolate, and so they quit faster on the unsolvable puzzles than students who did not have to exert self-control. These results suggest that resisting temptation—wanting chocolate but eating radishes instead—seems to have depleted the participants’ energy because they gave up more easily on a frustrating task. So the ability to exercise self-control is limited.
How does this help you to avoid the donuts in the break room? Here’s how you can make it easier for you to stop eating junk food at work: when you get hungry, or when the clock says it’s time for a meal, stop working and eat the bagged lunch you brought that day—a healthy, delicious lunch you put together the night before. If you have trouble resisting the avalanche of pastries and other irresistible treats that load up the tables of the lunch room, or if you find yourself drifting towards the goodies when you’re having a conversation with a co-worker or a boss and you notice yourself eating and talking very quickly—perhaps because this person makes you nervous—what about taking your sack lunch outside if it’s a nice day? Or, if it’s the middle of winter, going to an empty room somewhere in the building.
It’s a lot easier to keep from eating junk food when you’re not taxing your energy trying to get your work done or keep up your end of a conservation. When you eat, eat. Watch the birds or taste the flavors in your food. When you talk, don’t eat. That gives you more energy to focus on what the other person’s saying. When you work, don’t eat. Then you won’t gum up your keyboards with food crumbs and you’ll actually be more productive!