A study on self-control — and a simple way to train it

Could you train your self-control with a technique that’s so easy, you can do it while you eat, flip channels, or brush your teeth? It might just be possible according to a new research study in which 70 college students went through 2 weeks of self-control training that involved using their non-dominant hands in everyday life.

The strength theory of self-control

Many scientists liken self-control to a muscle: the more you use it, the more fatigued it becomes. If you’ve lifted weights until you’re sore, you’re more likely to drop a heavy bag of groceries; and if you’ve used your self-control until it’s drained, you might snap at a well-meaning friend.

According to the researchers who conducted this 2013 study, the strength model also has a theoretical upside. They hypothesized that the students in this study could strengthen self-control in the long run — in the way that a body builder eventually strengthens his muscles after weeks of training — by practicing self-control more often. In this case, students would train by resisting the urge to use their dominant hands.

Study design

At the beginning of the study, each student participant answered an Aggression Questionnaire to help researchers understand their natural aggression and anger levels.

The students were then split into two groups: a training group and a control group. Over the next two weeks, the training group was told to exert self-control by using their non-dominant hands as much as possible for everyday tasks. The trainers filled out online diaries and answered text messages from the researchers to help stay on track. The control group received generic texts and questions during this time period.

After two weeks, all students came back to the lab to take part in two experimental tasks designed to provoke anger and aggressive behavior — and to help researchers measure how successful training had been.

First, students were told to present their life goals to a stranger over video chat. As far as the students knew, this stranger was meant to give constructive feedback. In reality, the stranger’s goal was to provoke anger: instead of real feedback, students got a barrage of insults. Immediately afterwards students answered questions about their anger levels.

Next came a disguised test of aggressive behavior: students were told to play a competitive game against the same insulting stranger. If they won, they could punish their opponent with a loud blast of white noise. In reality, the “games” were rigged so that the students won every time, and the length and loudness of their blasts gave researchers an opportunity to measure aggression levels.

Less anger linked to self-control training

In the survey administered after the students received insulting feedback, the training group reported feeling less angry than the control group.

And when researchers looked only at students with high Aggression Questionnaire scores, an even more striking difference came out. The naturally aggressive people who didn’t undergo self-control training tended to deliver more aggressive blasts of noise, as expected; but the naturally aggressive people who did train self-control showed no unusually aggressive behavior.

What’s next?

Self-control is one of the more fascinating aspects of human behavior. While this study examined practicing self-control in a very specific situation, this ability can have far-reaching effects on other aspects of everyday life. In a past study, for example, researchers found that people perceive coworkers with higher self-control as better at their jobs. And anecdotally, all of us can remember a time when self-control felt crucial to a task.

That’s why it’s so encouraging to see researchers explore such a simple, accessible technique for training self-control. While further research remains to be done, the non-dominant hand technique is yet another way you can challenge yourself during your regular routine. Next time you play a Lumosity impulse control game like Color Match, add to the challenge by using your non-dominant hand.

Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092656611000250