Getting A Good Deal

Why my husband keeps me away from the bargaining table.

All my life, I have been a terrible negotiator.  I overpaid for everything, even though I have long understood, in principle, how a negotiation should be conducted.  I know that you need to “drive a hard bargain” and “be willing to walk away from the table” if you want to get the best possible deal.  I just never seemed to be able to do it, ever.

It’s reached the point that my husband forbids me from speaking whenever we are negotiating the price of a car, a home, or even a used toaster at the flea market.  And while I wouldn’t usually take too kindly to being silenced, I have to admit that I see his point.  In a negotiation, I am the weakest link.

In the past, I’ve always chalked it up to one fundamental problem: I fervently and rigidly conform to the social norm of reciprocity – that kindness should be repaid with kindness.  Which sounds noble, but in my case it’s borderline dysfunctional.  For instance, if the salesman shaved $100 off the price of a car, I felt that we should reciprocate his nice gesture by buying it.  Somehow, the fact that the car remained overpriced by a few thousand dollars didn’t quite enter into it for me.

A recently published paper, however, has made me question this explanation, and realize that there may be more to my problem than just pathologically wanting to appear nice.

This set of studies showed that when people know that they are about to negotiate, they see that looming negotiation as either a threat or a challenge. People who see a negotiation as a threat experience greater stress, and they make less advantageous deals.  Their poor performance is caused primarily by the fact that stressed negotiators behave more passively, and are less likely to use tough tactics aimed at gaining leverage, compared to the hard-ballers who feel negotiation to be more of a challenge than a threat.

This makes so much sense to me.  My husband absolutely sees negotiating as a challenge. He believes he has the knowledge and the ability to succeed.  He looks forward to a good haggle.  I do not.  Reading this paper, I realized that I have always seen negotiations as threatening, believing that I lacked whatever abilities good bargainers have.  I believed I was doomed to fail, and just wanted it over with as quickly as possible.  Why prolong a stressful, threatening situation, when you can throw in the towel and move on?

This is, of course, ridiculous.  When I stop and really think about it, I see that I am perfectly capable of negotiating as well as the next guy.   There’s nothing wrong with me.  I’m not missing the bargaining gene.  I’ve just always believed I wasn’t good at negotiating, and saw it as threatening, without ever really questioning whether or not that was actually true.

So, what do you do if, like me, you see negotiations as threats and opportunities for failure? Well, the first step is to realize that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy – believing that you lack the ability to succeed pretty much guarantees that you won’t.  But now ask yourself, is it even true that I lack the ability to succeed in a negotiation? What do your fellow bargainers have that you don’ t have?  The answer is almost certainly: nothing.  They don’t have special abilities.  They just believe in themselves.  They believe they can drive the hard bargain.  That’s what matters.

So whether he likes it or not, I’m joining my husband in our next negotiation.  I see now that believing that I am a lousy negotiator has made that belief a reality, and I refuse to accept this lie any longer.   Wait and see - I am going to get a great deal on our next toaster.

K. O’Connor, J. Arnold, & A. Maurizio (2010) The prospect of negotiating: Stress, cognitive appraisal, and performance.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


Yes, You Can Stop Thinking About It

Every one of us knows what it’s like to be plagued by an unpleasant or unwanted thought.  It could be a nagging self-doubt, a disturbing story from the evening news, the humiliation of being recently rejected by a potential love interest. Try as you might to block it out, the image or feeling pops up over and over again.  It makes you miserable, and leaves you feeling very much a virtual prisoner of your own cruel mind.

Most people believe that there really isn’t much you can do about it – that on some level, these thoughts must need to happen, and that trying to block them out is pointless.  The good news is, most people are wrong.  You absolutely can block out painful, unwanted, or counterproductive thoughts, if you are armed with the right strategies.  And I got a chance to put them to the test once again just last week, when I shut the bathroom door on the index finger of my four-year old daughter, Annika.

It was very, very bad.   Her finger had been near the hinge where the force was greatest, so the tip was fractured and, the surgeon told me later, nearly severed.  Immediately after it happened, I scooped up my shoeless daughter and her 1-year old brother, still in his pajamas, and ran out into the New York City streets frantically in search of a cab.  We spent the next four hours in the ER.

By the time we got back to our apartment, Annika was once again all smiles and sunshine.  Her surgeon had assured us that she would heal quickly and that there would be no lasting damage.  Remarkably, she wasn’t even in any pain.  Once she was settled in on the sofa with her dad and brother and a big bowl of ice cream, I took the dog for a long walk in the park, and bawled my eyes out.  (Thank goodness New Yorkers avoid eye contact. Maybe nobody noticed.)

As terrible as it is as a parent to cope with any injury to your child, there’s a very special kind of anguish in knowing that you were the one who caused it.

Now, I knew perfectly well that it was an accident, and that accidents happen to everyone (even neurotically safety-obsessed moms like me).  I knew that there was really nothing to be gained from dwelling on what happened.  But the next day, even though Annika was playful and pain-free, I still felt awful.  From moment to moment, I cycled through the hit parade of negative emotions: guilt, anxiety, depression, self-loathing.  I couldn’t enjoy playing with my children, I couldn’t concentrate on anything.  I couldn’t even feel the joy and relief that you’d have thought I would feel knowing that my daughter was happy and on the mend.

The problem was that memories of what happened kept popping up in my mind.  I would see the terror in her eyes, remember my own panic and struggle to stay calm, relive the moment where I had started to close the door and wish I had just looked down to see her standing there.  I knew that I was going to continue to feel terrible unless I could rid myself of these unwanted, painful thoughts.  Fortunately, I knew just what to do.

Blocking out (or “suppressing”) a thought is challenging, because a blocked thought tends to rebound – in other words, it can come back later with a vengeance once you’ve let your guard down. The most well-known account of why rebounding happens comes from ironic monitoring theory.  The idea is that, while you are blocking out a thought (for instance, trying to rid yourself of thoughts of “white bears”), part of your brain is actively searching for any thoughts of white bears so it can immediately shut them down.

That active search creates an ironic effect – it makes white bear thoughts more accessible, so that once you let your guard down and stop blocking, the thoughts come rushing back.  Now all you can think about is white bears.

For a long time, psychologists believed that allowing yourself to go ahead and think about white bears was the only solution – eventually, since your brain wasn’t on the lookout for these thoughts and actively trying to block them anymore, they would fade.  But thoughts can be blocked, without rebounding.  To do this, there are two things you need to know.

1)   First, remember that blocking a thought is always a bit difficult, no matter what the thought is.  But just because it’s hard, that does not mean that, on some level, you need to think that particular thought.   Your brain doesn’t necessarily have a hidden agenda.  The real irony is that believing that it does is actually what creates rebound!  In other words, you will continue to be haunted by a thought if you give the difficulty you have blocking it out more meaning and importance than it deserves.

In fact, in a series of studies, psychologists Jens Foerster and Nira Liberman found that if they explained to people in advance, before they blocked out a thought, that it is always difficult to block any thought, there was no rebounding whatsoever.  Blocked thoughts actually stayed blocked.  The white bears never returned.

So the first step to blocking an unwanted thought is really embracing the idea that you don’t really need to think it.

2)   Second, you need a strategy for handling the thought when it does come.  A good if-then plan is just what the doctor ordered for coping with unwanted thoughts and disruptive feelings (see my previous post, Be Careful What You Plan For, for more on planning).

The key is to plan out, in advance what you will do when the thought pops up in your mind.   It can be as simple as saying to yourself, “If the thought comes, then I will ignore it.”   Some may prefer to replace the unwanted thought or feeling with a more positive one.  In one study, tennis players who were plagued by pre-match anxiety and self-doubt conquered these thoughts with the plan “If I doubt myself, then I will remember all the times I’ve won in the past.”

For me, the plan “If I think about the accident, then I will picture Annika’s smiling face when it was all over,” was amazingly effective.  As I practiced it over and over again throughout the day, whenever those terrible visions paid a visit, I felt their power over me melting away. Their visitations grew less and less frequent.  I was able to feel happy again, and to see that my little girl had long since forgiven me for what had happened.  It finally felt okay to start forgiving myself, too.

Now, I am not saying that we should go around blocking out all the unpleasant thoughts that come our way.  There are times when we do truly need to reflect on the bad things that happen to us, to understand their significance, to come to terms with our feelings, and to learn and grow from our experiences.  But when there really isn’t anything to be gained from reflection – when a thought simply prolongs pain – it’s good to know that there really is a way to rid yourself of it and move on.

J. Foerster & N. Liberman (2001) The role of attribution in producing postsuppressional rebound.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 377-390.

S. Koole & A. van Knippenberg (2007) Controlling your mind without ironic consequences: Self-affirmation eliminates rebound effects after thought suppression.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 671-677.


Why Did They Think They'd Get Away With It?

Tiger Woods, Jesse James, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton…. you get where I’m going.   It’s only too obvious what these men have in common.  Each of them cheated on his wife, not once, but (allegedly) many, many times.  And because they are all public figures of one kind or another, each of them was taking a bigger-than-usual risk every time.  The possibility of exposure increases with fame, as do the potential consequences, and no doubt they were all well aware of it.  Whatever you may think of these men – that they are despicable, that they are sex addicts, that their actions might be in some sense justifiable – you really can’t help but wonder how in the world they thought they would get away with it. In the age of 24-hour news, relentless paparazzi, and countless internet gossip sites, it’s gotten awfully hard to keep a secret.   Why did these men think that theirs would be the exception?

The answer, at least in part, may lie in something else that they have in common.  Each man, in his own way, was in a position of significant power when he engaged in his extra-marital shenanigans.  They were all men of influence, whose decisions impacted the lives of many others.  And as we all know, power does funny things to people.  More specifically, feeling powerful can lead someone to engage in riskier behavior than they otherwise would, because power makes you more optimistic about risk.

A series of studies by Cameron Anderson and Adam Galinsky showed that when male and female participants felt powerful, they preferred riskier business plans (with bigger potential rewards) to more conservative plans, divulged more information and were more trusting during negotiations, chose to “hit” more often during a game of black-jack, and were more likely to engage in unprotected sex during a one-night stand (sound familiar?)  This was true whether the participants had a generally higher sense of power (like the aforementioned sports stars and politicians), or were momentarily made to feel powerful in the experiment.

These researchers also found that when in power, people focus more on the potential payoffs of their risky behavior, and much less (if at all) on the possible dangers.  This leads to being overly-optimistic, even about things no one could possibly control (like avoiding turbulence on an airplane, or encountering a dangerous snake while on vacation).

So if power makes you prone to risky behavior, why then do some powerful people seem to be so personally conservative and risk-averse?  After all, not every politician has a weakness for call girls or interns.  Well, it turns out that when being in power is your primary focus, and you believe it’s possible to lose that power, then feelings of power can actually make you more conservative.  Basically, you don’t want to lose the power you’ve worked so hard to attain, so you avoid risks.  If, on the other hand, you feel your power is irrevocable – that no one can take it away from you -  then caution is once again thrown to the wind.

So to those of you in positions of power, I’ve got two pieces of advice.   First, before you make any decision, be sure to give some serious thought to the potential dangers you may encounter.  If things don’t work out as you planned, exactly how bad will that be for you?   Second, remember that in this day and age, no one has irrevocable power.   Make the wrong choices, and you can lose everything.   Is it still worth it?

C. Anderson & A. Galinsky (2006). Power, optimism, and risk-taking. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 511-536.

A. Galinsky, D. Gruenfeld, & J. Magee (2003)  From power to action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 453-466.

J. Maner, M. Gailliot, D. Butz, & B.M. Peruche (2007) Power, risk, and the status quo: Does power promote riskier or more conservative decision making. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 451-462.


In Failure, We Are All Alan Greenspan

In prepared remarks before the panel investigating the roots of the financial crisis, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan blames the subprime crisis on foreign investors, nonbank lenders, the spread of securitized mortgages and financial firms for failing to manage their risk. The one person he did not blame was himself, or his institution -- the Fed.

- Shahien Nasiripour, The Huffington Post, reporting on Greenspan’s testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission on April 7, 2010

Despite the fact that the Federal Reserve, as the nation’s largest bank, with Alan Greenspan at its helm, did not take any significant action to curb the reckless lending that precipitated our current financial crisis, Greenspan apportioned blame everywhere but to himself.  At one point in his testimony, he seemed to even blame the fall of the Berlin Wall.  (His logic:  seeing the truly awful job the Soviets were doing running their economy brought about distrust of “central planning” of any kind.   So evidently, the excesses of Capitalism are Communism’s fault.)

Alan Greenspan was instrumental in determining U.S. financial policy for 19 years, but he somehow doesn’t feel he is responsible for the failure of the policy he helped create.  Is he crazy?  Actually, no.   Is he consciously and willfully misleading the Commission (and the rest of us)?  Very probably not.  Without actually being Alan Greenspan, I can’t say for sure, but the odds are good that he really does believe he’s not to blame.  And as much as we might like to think otherwise, we’d probably feel the same way if we were in his shoes.

Psychologists call this the self-serving bias – the tendency to see ourselves as responsible for our successes, but to see other people or the circumstances as responsible for our failures.  We reason this way to protect our self-esteem, and to protect our image in the eyes of others.   We also do it because it really feels right.  Think of an actor on stage – as a member of the audience, you are focused on what he is doing, but if you’re the actor, you see everything but yourself.  You see your fellow actors, the scenery, the audience, but you can’t actually watch you.  Because of what’s called the actor/observer difference, it’s easy for Alan Greenspan to look back over his 19 years at the Fed and see all the factors that played a role in screwing things up, and harder for him to see his own role in it.

Psychologist Tony Greenwald’s 1980 American Psychologist article on this topic cited some very amusing examples of the self-serving bias, taken from a San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle article on the explanations drivers gave to their insurers after an accident.  You’ll notice that some of these people went to remarkable lengths to deflect blame:

As I approached the intersection, a sign suddenly appeared in a place where a stop sign had never been before.  I was unable to stop in time to avoid an accident.

The telephone pole was approaching.  I was attempting to swerve out of its way when it struck my front end.

A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.

My car was legally parked as it backed into the other vehicle.

Studies show that in fact, nearly all of us fall victim to this kind of bias (though we tend to think that only other people do – yet another example of the bias at work.)

The upside of all this self-protection is that we don’t feel so bad when things go wrong, and can stay optimistic about our future chances for success.  The downside is that we don’t learn anything from our mistakes if we don’t recognize that we made them in the first place.  How can you do a better job next time if you won’t even admit you did a bad job this time?  Placing blame for your failures outside of yourself can also leave you feeling powerless and unable to make an impact in the future.

From a motivational perspective, the best way to handle a failure is to look honestly at how your own actions contributed to the outcome, emphasizing what you can change so that your performance improves from now on.  And even though, at 84, Alan Greenspan is unlikely to serve a second round as Fed Chairman, he would probably like to get an accurate handle on what went wrong – something he will never do unless he admits that he was actually driving.

A. Greenwald (1980).  The totalitarian ego: Fabrication and revision of personal history. American Psychologist, 35, 603-618.


How Did Tiger Woods Ignore That Plane?

Tiger Woods returned to the world of professional golf yesterday at the Masters Tournament, after a months-long and scandal-plagued absence.  Many sports analysts doubted that he would perform well – some predicted that he wouldn’t even get past the first cut.   How could he possibly focus?  Wouldn’t he be distracted by all the turmoil?  Surely he couldn’t perform under that kind of pressure, under such hostile scrutiny?

When Woods approached the first tee, he was greeted with applause and cheers - though there were enough boos and hisses to be clearly heard.  Then, a small and rather noisy airplane flew overhead, lingering above the course, with a message trailing behind that read “Tiger Did You Mean Bootyism?”  (referring to both his religion and his recent sexual transgressions).  A couple of hours later, a second banner appeared, reading “Sex addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me Too!”  Whatever taunts and animosity Woods may have expected to encounter yesterday, he probably never considered the possibility of sky-heckling.

Despite the pressure, the mocking, and whatever internal conflict and self-doubt he may be enduring, Tiger Wood shot a four-under-par 68, his best performance ever on the first day of a Masters.   Whatever your personal opinion of him may be, you really can’t help but wonder, how in the world did he do that?

One clue can be found in the answer he gave to a reporter, when he was asked what his remarkable comeback performance “meant to him.”   Woods replied, “It meant I’m two shots off the lead, that’s what it means.  I’m here to play a golf tournament.” This is an athlete who knows how to shut out distractions – to focus on the game and nothing else.  Not surprising, really, given that he has won 14 major titles (his last, the U.S. Open, when he was suffering a very painful knee injury).

Distraction is one of the most dangerous saboteurs we can encounter in pursuit of our goals, and it comes in many forms.  Some distractions, like jeering fans, loud noises, or taunting airplanes, come from outside of ourselves.  Others, like anxiety, self-doubt, cravings and intrusive thoughts, come from within.  Whatever the source, distractions take our attention and energy away from what we are trying to do, and lead to inefficiency and mistakes.

Not knowing him personally, I really can’t say which strategies Tiger Woods uses to shield his performance from distractions, but I can say something about the ones that the rest of us can use to keep ourselves from being distracted, from the inside and out.

First, you’ll want to practice.  Practice may not actually make perfect, but one thing it does for sure is make automatic.  The more you practice, the more the actions you need to take become routinized – your brain learns what to do without you having to consciously think about each step.  Automatically-executed actions are harder to derail.  For instance, because I have spent so many hours typing on my computer, the act of typing is relatively automatic for me – my toddlers can scream and bang on pots in the background and my fingers still hit all the right keys (now, whether what I end up writing in all that racket is actually worth reading is something else altogether.)

Second, try simulating the factors that might disrupt you as part of your practice.  Getting used to distractions makes them less attention-grabbing, and weakens their impact on your performance.  (When he was young, Tiger Wood’s father would often drop clubs or make loud noises when his son was in mid-swing, in order to prepare him for the distractions he might face in competition.)

Lastly, try making an if-then plan for how you will deal with the distractions you think are most likely to occur. By planning out in advance how you will respond, you can act swiftly to return your attention to your performance.  The plan can be as simple as saying “If I hear a distracting noise, then I will ignore it,” or “If people are calling out, then I will focus on the game.”  Studies show that if-then plans made by dieters to control their cravings (e.g., by having a healthy snack) and by competitive tennis players for dealing with feelings of anxiety or frustration (e.g., by thinking about how they’ve won in the past) are enormously useful for improving and maintaining performance.

These strategies will keep your focused on your goal, so you can stay “in the zone” and do your best, no matter what kind of distraction comes your way.


Just Don't Do It!

In my first year of graduate school, I got the opportunity to give my very first psychology lecture.  The professor who taught the course suggested that I videotape my performance, so I could see what I did well and what needed improvement.  When I finally sat down to watch the video, it was more than a little horrifying.  My “um”s and “uh”s outnumbered the actual words 2-to-1.  Even worse, I saw that I touched my nose over and over again while speaking, as though I were constantly monitoring my own sobriety.  Somewhere along the way I had unknowingly developed some very bad habits, and unless I wanted to be ruthlessly mocked for the rest of my teaching career, I was going to have to break them.

Habits are learned associations.  If you repeat the same behavior in the same situation over and over again, your mind makes a connection and a habit is born.  Light up a cigarette enough times in your favorite bar, and eventually just walking through the door will make you reach for your cigarette pack.  “Situations” can be emotional states as well.  Start using profane words to express your frustration, and pretty soon you’ll be cursing like a sailor every time you lose your temper.  My um-ing and nose-touching were nervous habits - responses to the stress I felt whenever I spoke to a large audience, that probably become habits somewhere in my adolescence (Why didn’t anybody back then tell me?)

Once a habit is formed, all you need is the situation or the cue, and the behavior that goes with it follows automatically.  In other words, you act without conscious intent (or even awareness – I certainly had no idea I had become a nose-toucher).  Most people have at least one bad habit of some sort that they’d like to rid themselves of, whether it’s smoking, nail-biting, over-sleeping, cursing, slouching, or eating too much when we’re nervous, depressed, or bored.

But what is the best strategy to use to break a bad habit?  Should you try to distract yourself, to take your mind off of the habit-triggering situation? Should you remove yourself from the situation entirely, or avoid it like the plague in the first place?  These strategies actually work very well when it comes to resisting temptations (like a plate of doughnuts, or a flirtatious co-worker), but not for breaking bad habits.

Distraction isn’t useful because the habit-behavior happens automatically – you don’t even need to be focused on what you’re doing.  Avoiding the situation altogether is pretty much impossible for most bad habits – how exactly do I avoid public speaking if I’m a professor?  How can we avoid ever being nervous, depressed, or bored?

So to really break a habit, what you need to do is focus on stopping the response before it starts (or, as psychologists tend to put it, you need to “inhibit” your bad behavior).  A recent study by Jeffrey Quinn, Anthony Pascoe, Wendy Wood, and David Neal shows that the most effective strategy for breaking a bad habit is vigilant monitoring – focusing your attention on the unwanted behavior to make sure you don’t engage in it.  In other words, thinking to yourself “Don’t do it!” and watching out for slipups.

In their study, participants kept a daily diary for a week or longer, to record their attempts at not engaging in a bad habit (e.g., overeating, sleeping during an early morning class, smoking, getting nervous before a test). With each attempt, they indicated which strategies they had used:  vigilant monitoring (thinking “Don’t do it!”, watching carefully for mistakes, or monitoring their behavior) distracting myself, or removing myself from the situation.

The results showed that only vigilant monitoring was effective in stopping bad habits. (A second study conducted in the laboratory, in which the experimenters manipulated which strategy participants used, produced the same results).  When people think to themselves “Don’t do it!” they are actually able to take their brain off autopilot and break the situation-behavior connection.  Over time, use of this strategy will destroy the connection completely, and the habit will be no more.

Incidentally, this is exactly how I stopped my nose-touching and excessive use of “um” and “uh” while lecturing.  I consciously monitored what I did with my hands and kept them away from my face at all times.  I wrote “NO UMS” at the top of each page of my lecture notes, to remind me not to fill my pauses with nonsense words.  I would videotape myself every so often to check on my progress.  Over time, (and it definitely took a while), I broke my nose-touching habit completely, and my ums and uhs are now no more frequent than everyone else’s.   I’m sure that I still give my students plenty to laugh about, but that’s ok with me.  I wouldn’t want to ruin all their fun.

J. Quinn, A. Pascoe, W. Wood, & D. Neal (2010) Cant’ control yourself? Monitor those bad habits.   Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 499-511.



How Standing Up Straight Can Help You Lose Weight

Self-control, or willpower, is essential for achieving just about any important goal.  Resisting temptations (like tasty snacks or cigarettes), ignoring distractions (like your rapidly filling email Inbox or your gossiping coworkers), taking actions you’d really rather not take (like getting on that treadmill or asking your penny-pinching boss for a raise) – all of these actions require significant self-control.  Do you have the willpower to get the job done, or have you found yourself giving in to temptations, distractions, and inaction when trying to reach your own goals?   If it’s the latter, you’re not alone.  But more importantly, you can do something about it.

It turns out that our capacity for self-control is surprisingly like a muscle. That’s right – like a bicep or tricep.  Like any muscle, self-control can vary in its strength, not only from person to person, but from moment to moment. Even well-developed biceps sometimes feel like jelly after too much strain, and so too does your self-control muscle.  Spend all day dealing with distractions, hassles, and stressors at work, and it’s awfully hard to summon up the willpower to resist the allure of the cocktail, the cigarette, or the fully-loaded nacho platter.

The good news is that depletion is only temporary -after you rest it a while, you will get your strength back.   The great news is that if you want more self-control in general, you can get more.  And you get more self-control the same way you get bigger muscles – you’ve got to give it regular workouts.

Do you have a sweet tooth?  Try giving up candy, even if weight-loss and cavity-prevention are not your goals.  Hate exerting yourself physically?  Go out and buy one of those handgrips you see the muscle men with at the gym – even if your goal is to pay your bills on time.  In a recent study, psychologist Mark Muraven asked a group of adult men and women in one study to either avoid sweets or use a handgrip over two weeks.  The ”avoid sweets” group was told to eat as little cake, cookies, candy, and other dessert foods as possible.  In the handgrip condition, people were given handgrips to take home and asked to hold them twice a day for as long as possible.  Both tasks require self-control – either to resist temptation, or to overcome physical discomfort – so both function as a kind of self-control workout.   At the end of two weeks of sweets-abstinence and handgripping, Muraven found that participants had significantly improved on a difficult computerized concentration task -having nothing to do with either giving up sweets or using a handgrip - that required lots of self-control.[i] Just by working their willpower muscle regularly, their self-control strength had increased measurably in a matter of weeks!

In another study from 2006, psychologists Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng gave participants a free gym membership, and individually-tailored exercise programs (designed by trainers) that included aerobics, free-weights, and resistance training.  After exercising regularly over the course of two months, these men and women had not only increased their ability to do a variety of laboratory self-control tasks, but also reported that many other areas of their life had improved as well.  They smoked fewer cigarettes, drank fewer alcoholic beverages, and ate less junk food.  They said they were better able to control their tempers, and less apt to spend money impulsively.  They didn’t leave their dishes in the sink, didn’t put things off until later, missed fewer appointments, and developed better study habits.  In fact, every aspect of their lives that involved using some self-control seemed to have improved dramatically.  When you exercise, it turns out that it’s not just your physical muscles you’re building.

Self-control training studies have used many different approaches – directing people to refrain from cursing, or to use their non-dominant hand to open doors and brush their teeth.  Just sitting up straight every time it occurs to you can help you build up self-control strength.  What all these different methods have in common is that each one forces you to do something you’d rather not do – to fight the urge to give in, give up, or just not bother.  Pick an activity that fits with your life and your goals – anything that requires you to override an impulse or desire again and again, and make an if-then plan (see my earlier posts) to add this activity to your daily routine.  It will be hard in the beginning, particularly if you aren’t used to working your self-control muscle that much.  I can promise you with complete confidence that it will get easier over time if you hang in there, because your capacity for self-control will grow.  When it does, it can impact every aspect of your life for the better.

M. Muraven (2010) Building self-control strength: Practicing self-control leads to improved self-control performance.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 465-468.


M. Oaten & K. Cheng (2006)   Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise.  British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 717-733.