study published last year, Mark Muraven at the University of Albany had a subset of participants spend two weeks practising acts of self-control, such as resisting eating naughty food. These participants subsequently excelled at a lab measure of self-control compared with their own baseline performance. By contrast, no such improvement was observed among control participants who merely spent the same time completing maths problems (a task which, although onerous, Muraven claims doesn’t depend on the ability to resist impulses) or writing about any incidental acts of self-control they’d achieved. This latter condition was included to ensure that it is specifically the practice of self-control that is beneficial not merely spending time thinking about self-control. Also, participants in all groups were told that their activity would boost self-control, so as to rule out mere expectancy effects.
This post is part of the Research Digest's Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we'll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month's Psychologist magazine.