A new study explains why I can use self-control to meet one challenge, but I crumble when faced with a second challenge.

This morning, the New York Times ran a short piece, How Self-Control Lowers a Buyer’s Guard.

A paper in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that after doing an exercise that required self-restraint, people spent much more on impulse purchases.

In the study, college students were given an exercise: writing down their thoughts while not thinking of a white bear, or reading from a boring book while assuming a fake expression of interest. Next, they were given $10 to save or spend on an assortment of products.

The average sum spent by a test subject who’d just used self-control was $4.44. The average sum spent by a test subject who hadn’t just used self-control was $1.21.

Apparently, after people use self-restraint in a particular context, they have less self-restraint available to meet the next challenge.

Boy, this rings true to me.

Just recently, I sat with a plate of cookies in front of me for a two-hour meeting without taking a single one (distracted by that effort the entire time), only to grab a big handful of Hershey’s kisses from the bowl at the reception desk on the way out.

Yesterday, I battled myself to bite back the nagging words I wanted to hurl at the Big Man: “Can’t you hurry up?” “Aren’t you ready yet?” “We’re going to be late!” Then, one second after I congratulated myself on my self-restraint, I complained to him in a rude voice, “You never answered any of my scheduling emails.”

While exercising no longer takes a huge effort of will for me (this took years to achieve), I remember the days when I’d force myself to go to the gym, then buy a cookie on the way home.

This study provides an insight that’s truly useful in real life. If I know that my self-restraint is apt to be low after I’ve exercised it, I know to be extra-vigilant for a while, until my self-control store replenishes itself.

If you just can’t hear enough about the Happiness Project, check out the “Five Minute Interview” on Mind Hacks, where they were kind enough to interview me.

Marginal Revolution is a blog by two economists who take an expansive view of what subjects they discuss. There, I was delighted to discover a W. H. Auden poem, “The More Loving One,” I’d somehow never read before. My favorite relevant-to-the-Happiness-Project lines are:

If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Oo, this is a good one. Is it that self-restraint gets worn out and used up, or is it that we’re subconsciously rewarding ourselves?
    Like, if I’m wandering in Target and consider but choose not to buy something major like an $80 kitchen mixer, I might figure I’ve earned the right to go nuts buying crap at the Dollar Spot, because I feel like I’m $80 ahead of the game, what’s a couple of bucks? Only, of course, I’m not really ahead just because I didn’t buy something, I’m just less in the hole.
    Same with the exercise/cookie. A certain nameless relative rewards herself for a 20 minute walk in the morning (150 calories), with a Snickers bar in the afternoon (250 calories). It doesn’t even net out, but it feels like a suitable reward.
    Seeing it as a store of self restraint is interesting though – because the polar bear/shopping spree has no obvious equivalence. Hm!

  • Sharyn

    I wonder if this self-restraint “rebound” effect is also related to how some people “eat their feelings”, or tend to turn to food when they aren’t hungry but also aren’t facing/dealing with/understanding what’s going on emotionally. I thought about this because very recently I was biting my tounge over something I was really ticked off about, and digging into some cookies at the same time. I knew I was doing it because I was upset, but I did it anyway.

  • Cara

    Fascinating post! I wonder whether this self-restraint effect may explain why people who are stuck in jobs they hate tend to spend more as “retail therapy”? It seems to make sense.

  • I would suggest that it might be for a different reason: when we deny ourselves something that we desire (an expensive item or a high fat food, for example) we feel some anxiety. If we also have traditionally calmed ourselves with food or buying small items then we will use that route to calm ourselves, even when we have been “good” at not eating or buying.
    the model might be: Desire -> self control exercised (food not eaten or item not bought)-> anxiety -> self soothing strategy (eating, buying, etc) to reduce anxiety.
    Suggesting that we only have so much self control, as if there was a reservoir of self control that we had now emptied, doesn’t seem to fit the picture.
    The purpose of the two desires are different: one is the immediate gratification of a wish (which we are able to resist) and one is a learned response to soothe anxiety (which we then repeat as a conditioned behavior)

  • Hi,
    I think you really touched on something in this article.
    Nice post.

  • Hi Gretchen,
    These self-control studies also point out (to our future benefit!) that you can TRAIN the self-regulation muscle, and then the things that bothered you before won’t bother you as much anymore. It’s a muscle in both senses! It gets tired out like you explain, and it is TRAINABLE! I really like that imagery.
    Best to you,
    p.s. more info on this research at my link