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Practice makes you better at self-control tasks…

Posted on Aug 17, 2011 by Karen Niven

Practice makes you better at self-control tasks, but controlling your food intake will always tire you out!

Sarah Ryan, an undergraduate Psychology student at Sheffield, tells us what she has learned about dieting and self-control from a project she worked on with Karen and Eleanor from EROS…

Say you’ve just spent a long day resisting unhealthy snacks at work. When you get home do you go straight to the biscuit tin? Or do you feel boosted after successfully resisting the snacks and plan a healthy dinner? To resist short-term food temptations, we must exercise our self-control. Self-control is the process we use to override and alter our behaviour to bring it into line with society’s expectations and ideals. Without self-control we would struggle to achieve long term goals like holding down a job, staying healthy and paying the rent, because we would give in to the temptation to stay in bed all day, eat only chocolate and spend all our money on frivolous things (that’s what I’d do anyway!).

Despite how important self-control seems to be for our everyday functioning, we often fail at regulating our behaviour and give in to our temptations. The Strength Model of Self-Control (Baumeister, Vohs & Tice, 2007) explains that self-control failure is more likely when we have recently exercised our self-control. The model compares self-control to a muscle which becomes more tired and less effective the more we use it. Our self-control appears to be dependent on a limited resource which is used by all types of self-control tasks. Therefore if you’ve been controlling what you eat all day, not only are you more likely to succumb to food temptations, but you may also be more likely to impulse buy and too.

Paradoxically, by controlling their food intake regularly, dieters may be making themselves more likely to break their diets. Gailliot et al. (2007) suggest that glucose may be the resource drained by self-control acts. Dieters are likely to have low blood glucose levels, so their glucose levels are already depleted before they even begin to exercise their self-control. Dieters are also likely to be hungry much of the time, which can influence self-control failure. With all this against them, it’s not surprising that dieters tend to eat more unhealthy food after performing a self-control task (e.g. Vohs and Heatherton, 2000).

But don’t give up on the diet yet! Counteractive Control Theory (Fishbach, Friedman & Kruglanski, 2003) states that if we practice self-control over time, our self-control will become more efficient. Fishbach et al. (2003) found that the more important (and therefore more practiced) weight watching was to successful participants, the faster they were able to activate the long-term goal of weight watching when tempted by cake. This is also consistent with the Strength Model’s muscle analogy; although our self-control muscle becomes tired with use, if we practice using it, it will gradually become stronger. So successfully dieting over a period of time should make dieters better at resisting tempting foods. 

We investigated differences between dieters and non-dieters in self-control by having participants perform a series of self-control tasks and complete scales about their self-control abilities. Measures of fatigue and blood glucose were taken before and after the tasks to see if the groups were depleted by self-control use. Because a sample of dieters is likely to contain dieters ranging from those who are having success at their first dieting attempt to those who have dieted many times with little success, we decided to split dieters into successful and unsuccessful dieters after testing using their dietary success ratings.

So were there any self-control differences between non-dieters, successful dieters and unsuccessful dieters? Our results seemed to show two consistent patterns. Successful dieters consistently performed best at self-control tasks, with unsuccessful dieters performing worst and non-dieters’ performance falling in between. Successful dieters also had the highest habit ratings for controlling their behaviour and food intake and unsuccessful dieters the lowest. The high habit ratings suggest that successful dieters have a lot of practice at using their self-control. The other pattern we found was that both successful and unsuccessful dieters became more fatigued and had decreased blood glucose after performing self-control tasks, whereas the non-dieters didn’t seem to be depleted at all. So all dieters seem to lose energy and feel tired after exercising their self-control.

Our overall conclusion was that the more practiced and habitual self-control is for us, the better we perform at self-control tasks. However, if we are regularly using our self-control (e.g., by restricting our food intake) no matter how practiced we are, we will always be depleted somewhat when we perform self-control. This makes sense when we think about the characteristics of each group. Non-successful dieters have little practice at self-control, so they’re not going to perform as well as those who are more practiced, and because they have to exercise self-control many times each day to control their food intake, they’re also going to be depleted. Successful dieters are more practiced at using self-control, so they will perform well at self-control tasks, but they are still exercising a lot of self-control often in their dieting and are will still be somewhat depleted. Non-dieters’ performance falls in between these two groups because their level of self-control practice does, and they’re not depleted by self-control because they don’t use it as often as the dieters do.

These findings could be used for identifying times when dieters are more likely to break their diets and to tailor diet interventions to a person’s self-control ability. However at the moment our results are only preliminary. I was only able to test a small sample during the six week project, so it’s important to test the study on more participants first. Probably the most important thing I’ve learnt about research while I’ve been working on the project is that things rarely go the way you expect them to! Because it’s unpredictable, research can be both frustrating at times (when a scale isn’t reliable enough to use or you have trouble finding participants) and also very enjoyable (meeting participants and other researchers, running testing sessions and figuring out what your data means). This is all part of the experience really- a good researcher phrase I’ve learnt is ‘if we knew what was going to happen there wouldn’t be much point doing the research!’ It was definitely worth doing the project, it’s been really interesting and I’ve learnt so much which will be useful for my dissertation. Most of all, I’m pleased that our findings seem to be worth further testing and excited to see what is found when this happens.

If you’d like to find out more about the project, please contact Sarah Ryan: SRyan1@sheffield.ac.uk

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