In the Boston Globe Ideas section, Kevin Lewis highlights a new paper on “the restraint bias,” or the dangers of overestimating self-control:
One way to enhance self-control is to avoid tempting situations. The irony, according to a recent study, is that people who think they have more self-control allow themselves to get into more tempting situations and, as a result, are more likely to give in to temptation. For example, students who were made to feel fatigued were less confident in their ability to control fatigue and were less willing to put off studying for exams. Smokers who were led to believe that they had superior self-control were more willing to keep a proscribed cigarette in their proximity while watching the movie “Coffee and Cigarettes,” and, as a result, they were more likely to smoke it. Likewise, smokers who were trying to quit and who also felt they had high self-control were less likely to have abstained four months later, on account of not being diligent enough in avoiding temptation.
This research is a nice addendum to my recent WSJ piece on the muscle metaphor of self-control, which is all about the feeble nature of the prefrontal cortex and the stark limitations of human willpower. When we overestimate our mental powers, we act like a weakling trying to bench press 250 pounds. The end result is a bruised chest and an empty container of Haagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche. The moral, then, is that the first step towards increasing our self-control is self-awareness: Until we accept our frailties, we can’t do anything about them.