A decade’s worth of research suggests self-control is not a steady state but a psychological resource that can be depleted — and built up through practice.
Criminologists and sociologists have long believed that people commit violent crimes when an opportunity arises and they’re low on self-control. “It’s an impulsive kind of thing,” said psychological scientists Dr. Thomas F. Denson, a co-author on the research. He and his colleagues examined a wealth of recent experiments in which self-control was manipulated.
For example, a researcher can deplete someone’s self-control by telling the subject they’re not allowed to take one of the cookies sitting in front of them. And studies have found that, after people have had to control themselves for a while, they behave more aggressively. In a 2009 study, after someone’s self-control was depleted, they were more likely to respond aggressively to nasty feedback that ostensibly came from their husband or girlfriend.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to practice self-control the same way one would practice the piano.
In the current study, Denson had people try to use their non-dominant hand for two weeks. So, if they’re right-handed, they’re told to use their left hand “for pretty much anything that’s safe to do,” he said.
“Using the mouse, stirring your coffee, opening doors. This requires people to practice self-control because their habitual tendency is to use their dominant hands.”
After two weeks, people who have practiced self-control manage their aggression better. In one experiment, they’re mildly insulted by another student and have the option of retaliating with a blast of white noise—but people who have practiced self-control respond less aggressively.
“I think, for me, the most interesting findings that have come out of this is that if you give aggressive people the opportunity to improve their self-control, they’re less aggressive,” Denson said.
Denson believes aggressive people need to improve their self-control skills – a behavior that can improve with practice.
“It’s not that aggressive people don’t want to control themselves; they just aren’t very good at it. In fact, if you put aggressive people in a brain scanner and monitor their brain activity while insulting them, the parts of the brain involved in self-control are actually more active than in less aggressive people,” he said.
“So it might be possible to teach people who struggle with anger or violence problems to control themselves more easily.”
For people who aren’t inclined toward violence, it may also be useful to practice self-control—by trying to improve your posture, for example. In the short term, this can deplete self-control and make it harder to control your impulses.
“But if you practice that over the long term, your self-control capacity gets stronger over time,” Denson said. “It’s just like practicing anything, really—it’s hard at first.”
But, over time, it can make that annoying colleague easier to deal with.
The article is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.