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What to Do and Not to Do to Boost Self-Control

More and more research suggests that our brains have difficulty differentiating between observing an action and actually participating in it. Empathy, for example, seems to hinge in part on our ability to “take on” another’s emotions through vicarious experience. I always think of this when watching a comedian fall flat. I can feel the embarrassment as if I’m standing there on stage looking at a room full of blank stares.

A study in the journal Psychological Science investigated this dynamic, but from a different angle: researchers wanted to know if observing someone else exert self-control boosts or reduces one’s own self-control. Participants were asked to either take on the perspective of someone exerting self-control, or merely read about someone exerting self-control. They were also asked to take on the perspective or read about someone not exerting self-control.

The results: participants who took on the perspective of someone exerting self-control were unable to exercise as much self-control themselves; those who merely read about someone exerting self-control didn’t experience the energy drain. In other words, getting into the shoes of someone making the effort wore participants out as if they were doing it themselves.

On the flip side, participants who read about someone exerting self-control experienced a boost in their own self-control, compared to those who read about someone not exerting self-control. Reading resulted in a contagious effect rather than a vicarious one.

The difference between these results boils down to degrees of psychological separation. Taking on perspective reduces psychological separation, and the more that gap closes the greater the vicarious effect. Reading about something provides more of an opportunity to increase psychological separation, which reduces the chances of vicarious effect.

The implications of these findings are very practical. For instance, if a group of people are working on a project, and certain members are exerting an especially high degree of effort, this study suggests that other people in the group will experience vicarious energy depletion. An entire group’s energy could be affected by the exertion of one or two members.

Another example, mentioned by the study authors, are situations involving police officers, hospital staff and other emergency workers, whose ability to maintain self-control is essential to their jobs. It’s easy to see that if they experience vicarious depletion, anything from small breakdowns to catastrophic outcomes could result.

All of this leads me to believe that “self-control” is at least half misnomer. Social influences seem to affect us more than we know. On the other hand, regulating psychological distance–not something easily done–is a genuine application of self-control. If the pendulum swings too far in either direction, we either become wishy washy emotional sponges, or hardened crustaceans.

– David DiS­alvo is a sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy writer whose work appears in Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can Mind, Psy­chol­ogy Today and Men­tal Floss, among other mag­a­zines and web­sites. His book, ten­ta­tively titled “What Makes Your Brain Happy” (Prometheus Books) is sched­uled for release in late 2011. Fol­low his blog here.

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