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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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