Self-control as a Limited Resource
For years, the Baumeister and Tice Social Psychology Lab at Florida State University, headed up by the husband and wife team of Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice, has conducted groundbreaking research on the nature of willpower. The couple propose that willpower or self-control is akin to energy: the more you use it up in one situation, the less you have left over for other situations (they call this process ego-depletion). In 1998, for example, the pair published a paper (http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/74/3/774/) with co-author Mark Muraven, that showed people's ability to sustain a tight grip was curtailed after they'd suppressed their emotions during an upsetting movie. Aspects of their theory, including the idea that sugar can boost willpower, have recently been challenged.
If self-regulation conforms to an energy or strength model, then self-control should be impaired by prior exertion. In Study 1, trying to regulate one's emotional response to an upsetting movie was followed by a decrease in physical stamina. In Study 2, suppressing forbidden thoughts led to a subsequent tendency to give up quickly on unsolvable anagrams. In Study 3, suppressing thoughts impaired subsequent efforts to control the expression of amusement and enjoyment. In Study 4, autobiographical accounts of successful versus failed emotional control linked prior regulatory demands and fatigue to self-regulatory failure. A strength model of self-regulation fits the data better than activation, priming, skill, or constant capacity models of self-regulation. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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