Practicing self-control makes you more able to practice self-control. For people who are trying to better resist their impulses, like by politely declining to eat a third cookie, that sounds almost like a Catch-22 — if only you had honed your skill of self-control, you’d be able to hone your skill of self-control.
But the human brain is complex, and so that conundrum is what researchers say they discovered during a recent study: Exercising self-control in one aspect of your life enables you to exercise it in others. Their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences were based on the number of cheaters during a game. According to the study, people were less likely to cheat when they regularly resisted urges in another setting, specifically a bar.
Some of the subjects, all undergraduates at a Chinese university, were tolerant to alcohol and others were not. Those who were intolerant and used to resisting the impulse to imbibe while in a drinking environment did not cheat as often as those who did not often have to rely on their own willpower.
“This regular practice improves intolerant males’ ability to control their selfish impulses,” the study says. “An implication is that small and simple day-to-day lifestyle changes can have significant personal health and well-being benefits. … One might speculate that regular acts of self-control, such as resisting drinking or perhaps routinely exercising or waking at the same time each day, might improve one’s overall ability to resist selfish temptations.”
It is not the first study to suggest self-control and selfishness are conversely linked. In another recent study, researchers stimulated a part of the brain believed to be involved in social decision-making, such as acts of community and selflessness, and found that interfering with it in that way made people more selfish and impulsive, suggesting that the same brain region is involved in self-control. The researchers say people tend to view their future selves the same as they do a stranger, so hindering the ability to put others’ needs ahead of their own also makes them put their present needs above their own future needs — making them more selfish.
There are other brain mechanisms implicated in self-control as well. Another study determined that certain connections between the region called the prefrontal cortex and the brainstem, which leads to the spinal cord, are active when we overcome and control instincts like fear.
With the new research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences comes new information about how people can improve themselves.
“Impulse control, like a muscle, can be developed in natural environments as a consequence of practicing small acts of self-control,” the study says.
Source: Houser DE, Wang J and Rao Y. An experimental analysis of acquired impulse control among adult humans intolerant to alcohol. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2016.