Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Digest guide to ... willpower

10 years of the Research Digest
This is the sixth and last in a series of self-help posts drawing on the BPS Research Digest archive to mark its tenth anniversary. The previous posts covered studyinghuman attractionhappinessinfluencing people and creativity.

Learn healthier habits. One way to grow your willpower is to turn wished-for behaviours into habits. This means building routines until certain cues of time or place prompt you to go for a run, say, or eat the right kind of food, without even thinking about it. How long does it take to form a new habit? Phillippa Lally at UCL’s Health Behaviour Unit asked 96 participants to keep a daily diary and the average time it took for a new healthy habit to reach peak automaticity was 66 days – far longer than previous estimates. The good news was that a single missed day had little long-term impact on successful habit formation, although repeated omissions did have a cumulative detrimental effect on the maximum automaticity that was reached.

Distract yourself. If at first you don’t succeed, cheat. In Walter Mischel’s classic studies of young children’s self-control, he found that the kids able to resist cookies and marshmallows for longer periods tended to adopt distraction strategies, such as covering their eyes or singing to themselves.

Gargle an energy drink. Roy Baumeister and his collaborators have shown that acts of self-control reduce people’s glucose levels and that, in turn, diminished blood glucose is associated with weaker performance on self-control tasks. On the positive side they've shown that a high-glucose energy drink can recharge willpower. More recently, research suggests that it may not even be necessary to consume sugar to boost your self-control levels - simply swirling a glucose drink around your mouth also does the trick.

Use your inner voice. We’re all familiar with the little voice in our head that tells us not to be naughty. A 2010 suggested this voice really does play a useful role in self-control. When participants were instructed to repeat the word "computer" in their heads - thereby occupying their inner voice - they fared less well at a lab test of self control. "[T]his study provides evidence that when we tell ourselves to 'keep going' on the treadmill, or when we count to ten during an argument, we may be helping ourselves to successfully overcome our impulses in favour of goals like keeping fit, and preserving a relationship," the researchers said.

Train your willpower. They say willpower is like a muscle. Although acts of self-restraint can leave us temporarily vulnerable to temptation, just as if our sinews of willpower were fatigued, longer-term the more we practise using self-restraint, the stronger our willpower muscle becomes. Researchers showed this in 2010. Students who practised avoiding snack food for two weeks ended up being better at lab tests of self-control, as compared with control participants who merely completed maths problems.

Don't underestimate the power of cravings. When satiated, we tend to underestimate the power of our visceral needs when hungry, tired, or lustful. As a consequence, we have misplaced confidence in our ability to resist temptation - a phenomenon researchers have dubbed the "restraint bias". In one research demonstration, students leaving a cafeteria after eating tended to have misplaced confidence in their ability to take away their favourite snack bar and bring it back uneaten a week later.

Put procedures in place to bypass your weak will. A 2007 study of effective savers found that they not only tended to place higher value on the future, they also put procedures in place to aid their saving, such as automatic transfers to a savings account each month. This and other techniques used by the successful savers all had one thing in common – they made the saving process partly automatic and so less dependent on willpower. By contrast, the failed savers used ineffective techniques like keeping only small amounts of cash on them when they went out.

Use if-then plans. When your willpower levels have been drained by earlier temptation, that’s when you’re most likely to err. One way to protect yourself is to form so-called "if-then" plans. For example, imagine that you wanted to avoid getting angry the next time your boss is overly critical, you could form the plan "if my boss says my work is amateurish then I will recall the time that I won an award" – a thought which will hopefully have a soothing effect. A study published earlier this year found that, at least when it comes to unhealthy snacking, it's best to implement one if-then plan at a time (e.g. if I am feeling hungry then I will eat an apple). Too many plans and our memories become swamped.

Climb aboard the mind-bus. Imagine you are the driver of a "mind-bus" and any difficult thoughts about temptation are the awkward passengers. Choose a specific method for dealing with these difficult thoughts/passengers and rehearse it mentally for five minutes - for example, either describe the passengers, let them know who is in charge, make them talk with a different accent, or sing what they are saying. The idea is to teach you that you are not your thoughts and you have control over them. A study published earlier this year found the mindbus technique was an effective way to resist eating chocolates.

Clench your muscles. Flexing your muscles can augment your willpower by evoking non-conscious goal-related thoughts and emotions. Across five studies published in 2010, Iris Hung and Aparna Labroo showed that various forms of muscle flexion, from fist clenching to calf muscle tightening, helped participants to endure pain now for later benefit, and to resist short- term gain (e.g. snack food) in order to fulfil a long-term gain of better health. Research published this year also showed that fist-squeezing can help prevent choking in high-pressure sports situations, although in this case the underlying mechanism (right hemisphere activation) was thought to be different.

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Post compiled by editor Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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