Why Self-Control Lets us Down

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • One of the defining characteristics of the human condition is our capacity to exert self-control over our impulses and desires; yet another is our inability. Think of the diet that collapses over a tub of ice cream, the smoker who starts again and the shopaholic who runs up a huge credit bill. The issues are different and the reasons may be complex, but it is the lack of self-control that leads to their situations. So it is with gambling, drinking, people who can’t control their anger or people who want to be more assertive. The question is, why do attempts at self-control often result in dismal failure?

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    Tempering our desires or exercising willpower requires effort, but as humans we have limited resources to fall back on. In fact the research to date points to a situation where all attempts at self-control appear to tap into a single source. The effect of using this resource for one thing is to deplete our capabilities in another. The effort of sticking to a diet, for example, could result in a slump in our studies.


    A study by Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer Gutsell, reported in the November issue of Psychological Science, provides an understanding of what is actually happening in the brain when self-control is exercised. In the study, 40 students were fitted with an electrode cap for EEG recording. The students were then asked to watch two excerpts from movies depicting animals suffering and dying. One group of students were simply asked to watch the movies carefully whilst the second group were asked to suppress both their internal emotions and external reactions. Following the 10 minute movie students were asked to undertake an unrelated laboratory task that elicited correct or incorrect responses. The researchers found that those who had been asked to exert self-control did worse on the laboratory task indicating that they had used up self-control resources.


    EEG results confirmed that the self-control group produced weaker brain responses in an area of the brain that is normally active during situations that monitor errors or conflicts with the task they are undertaking or situation they are in. The fact that after being involved in one act of self-control for just 10 minutes resulted in failures on a second yet completely unrelated activity has important implications. The speed of the effect is worth noting as are the possible implications for a variety of activities such as might be undertaken in educational, therapeutic, or sport settings where performance or behavior change is an important feature.




    Inzlicht, M., Gutsell, J.N. (2008) Running on Empty; neural signals for self-control failure. Psychological Science. 18.(11) 933-8.

Published On: January 11, 2008