Unconscious Willpower: How You Can Improve Self-Control Without Really Trying

New research reveals a new approach to willpower

There are many tenets of happiness that require willpower, or discipline, or self control. But new research reveals that it may not be as hard as we usually believe.

“Many important behaviors such as weight loss, giving up smoking, and saving money involve a lot of self-control,” say the researchers. “While many psychological theories state that actions can be initiated automatically with little or no conscious effort, these same theories view inhibition as an effortful, consciously controlled process. Although reaching for that cookie doesn’t require much thought, putting it back on the plate seems to require a deliberate, conscious intervention. Our research challenges the long-held assumption that inhibition processes require conscious control to operate.”

So say scientists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They demonstrated through neuroscience research that inaction-related words can unconsciously influence our self-control. It turns out that overhearing someone—even totally out of context—say something as simple as “calm down” could trigger us to stop a behavior without realizing it. The findings are reported in the September issue of the journal Cognition.

A study followed volunteers’ brain activity as they were given instructions and subliminal messages. Action or inaction messages had nothing to do with the actions or inactions volunteers were doing, yet the action/inaction words had a definite effect on the volunteers’ brain activity. Unconscious exposure to inaction messages increased the activity of the brain’s self-control processes, whereas unconscious exposure to action messages decreased this same activity.

These findings have yet to be tested in real-world scenarios, but you could try it at home: enroll a friend to say trigger words around you in a scenario where you’re tempted by extra servings of sweet, alcohol, or other substances that make you feel like you should be controlling your consumption. Report back!


Category: Psych


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