How many of us have clenched our jaw muscles in an effort to avoid saying something we know we’ll regret or balled up a fist tightly to avoid pursuing an action?
A new study says that this kind of muscle-tightening activity can actually give a person more self-control.
But don’t expect to be able to use this method as a mechanism to prepare for oncoming temptations. The study also found that it only helps at the moment a person faces a self-control dilemma.
In fact, those who tried to use this strategy ahead of an event were often exhausted by the process by the time the choice for self-control needed to be made.
Researchers also determined that tightening one’s muscles only helped if the situation complemented an individual’s personal goals in a positive way (e.g., eating healthier). Offering an example, researchers pointed out that health-conscious participants in the study were willing to ingest more healthy substances when they were tightening their muscles than they would have if they had been relaxed.
In contrast, the procedure had no effect on those who were not health-conscious.
“The mind and the body are so closely tied together, merely clenching muscles can also activate willpower,” the authors write. “Thus simply engaging in these bodily actions, which often result from an exertion of willpower, can serve as a non-conscious source to recruit willpower, facilitate self-control, and improve consumer wellbeing.”
The study was led by Iris W. Hung of the National University of Singapore and Aprna A. Labroo of the University of Chicago. Participants were asked to take part in a number of scenarios where self-control involved accepting immediate pain for long-term gain.
One scenario involved participants putting their hands in an ice bucket to determine how muscle-tightening affected resistance to pain.
In another scenario, participants were questioned about their focus on healthy lifestyle and then asked to consume a bad-tasting but healthy vinegar drink.
In a third experiment, study participants had to make the decision as to whether they would look at disturbing information about injured children devastated by an earthquake in Haiti and then donate money to provide assistance.
The fourth scenario involved researchers observing the actual food choices people made as they shopped for lunch at a local cafeteria.
The authors pointed out that it didn’t matter which muscles a person tightened to exert self-control, the end result produced a greater ability “to withstand the pain, consume the unpleasant medicine, attend to the immediately disturbing but essential information, or overcome tempting foods.”
The findings of this study can be found in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.