Self Control in the Tank

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Self control in the tank

The traditional view on self control is that some people are just better and do exert more self control because this is a “trait” or some kind of natural ability. This model of self control has also been part of the support for the slightly more extreme view that some people exert more self control because they are better human – that is better in some moral capacity.
In this view self control springs eternally from a well of moral righteousness or rectitude, ie. from the assumed fact that your actions are justified and that you are leading a life that is pleasing to God. And in this model it makes sense to spend time on bible studies in order to gain more control over your urges and behaviors. This is clearly getting quite far away from any scientific thinking – past or present – but has nevertheless informed attempts to deal with alcoholism and other addictions.

While the more extreme version of trait self control model seems quite insane and intensely ill informed, it should also be noted that the scientific community has been rather slow to develop a satisfying alternative. Walter Michel and his team did his now famous marshmallow tests with back in 1960s and tested preschoolers ability to delay gratification: They would tell the kids that they could eat their marshmallow now or wait for the adult to come back and give them one more.  The results of this simple test was later shown to predict academic performance over the lifetime of these kids.



But if you had expected this line of research to spark a revolution you would had been disappointed. In the following years there would be nothing but crickets. While Michel carried on with his research, it did not lead to any wider changes in psychology research or applied psychology. Not until just around 2000 when Roy Baumeister and a group of researchers around him started to poke around with the concept of “ego depletion”, the scientific term for what is colloquially known as brainfade.


The basic premise is that your brain is fulled with some resource that self control depends on. You would not expect your car to get you very far if it had no fuel in the tank. But in the “trait” view of self control, you are expected to endlessly apply yourself no matter what the situation or what state you are in. It has been known for a very long time that ex-smokers tend to relapse if and when they come under severe stress. This is very hard to explain in the trait model of self control, but is something that you would expect if self control depends on some limited resource that is spent on dealing with otherwise unrelated stress.
The basic assumption is that while your exert self control you will spend resources, resources that you only have a limited amount of. This means that doing something that takes self control will compromise your ability to exert self control at a later point in the day. And that it becomes extremely interesting to find out how this applies to ordinary people, to addicts, to obese people and to other groups who struggle with maintaining sufficient self control.

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