We have a Limited Supply of Willpower

October 24, 2012 No Comments by Scott Isaacs, M.D.

Self-control is a limited commodity that runs low as you use it. So once your pool dries up, you’ll struggle when faced with temptation, finds a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Researchers asked 16 people to perform self-control tasks while being monitored by an MRI scanner. During the first session, people were assigned to either a demanding mental task or easier task. Two weeks later, they swapped tasks.

The results: Brain scans from the first session showed promising activity in both the participants’ anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)–an area that deals with decision-making–and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), an area that helps manage self-control.

But after the second session, those who were exposed to the demanding task first showed less activity in their DFPFC. Simply put, “if you exert a significant amount of self-control at one time, you’ll have a hard time exerting it later,” says lead study author William Hedgcock, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa.

Let’s say you’re sitting in front of a plate of brownies at work, but you resist because you’re on a diet. Hedgcock’s research shows the next time you’re faced with sweets–whether it’s later tonight or two days from now–you’ll be more likely to cave. Why? Hedgcock believes it’s because your self-control is like a muscle: If you use it extensively in the short term, it will wear out and become exhausted. And time is really the only thing that helps it recover.

To prevent your self-control engine from running out of fuel, use your resources more wisely, or make less drastic choices, says Hedgcock. That’s easier said than done, but here’s an example: If you’re on a diet but still craving something sweet, opt for a smoothie over a large sundae, rather than caving or withholding completely.

That way, you satisfy your craving and exercise some self-control, but also refrain from overworking it, says Hedgcock.

By Madeline Haller, Men’s Health (7/22/12)

For more information, please read my book Hormonal Balance: How to Lose Weight by Understanding Your Hormones and Metabolism or visit my Facebook page.



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