Why it is impossible for some to 'just say no'

Oct 10, 2007

Drug abuse, crime and obesity are but a few of the problems our nation faces, but they all have one thing in common—people’s failure to control their behavior in the face of temptation. While the ability to control and restrain our impulses is one of the defining features of the human animal, its failure is one of the central problems of human society. So, why do we so often lack this crucial ability"

As human beings, we have limited resources to control ourselves, and all acts of control draw from this same source. Therefore, when using this resource in one domain, for example, keeping to a diet, we are more likely to run out of this resource in a different domain, like studying hard. Once these resources are exhausted, our ability to control ourselves is diminished. In this depleted state, the dieter is more likely to eat chocolate, the student to watch TV, and the politician to accept a bribe.

In a recent study, Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto Scarborough and colleague Jennifer N. Gutsell offer an account of what is happening in the brain when our vices get the better of us.

Inzlicht and Gutsell asked participants to suppress their emotions while watching an upsetting movie. The idea was to deplete their resources for self-control. The participants reported their ability to suppress their feelings on a scale from one to nine. Then, they completed a Stroop task, which involves naming the color of printed words (i.e. saying red when reading the word “green” in red font), yet another task that requires a significant amount of self-control.

The researchers found that those who suppressed their emotions performed worse on the Stroop task, indicating that they had used up their resources for self-control while holding back their tears during the film.

An EEG, performed during the Stroop task, confirmed these results. Normally, when a person deviates from their goals (in this case, wanting to read the word, not the color of the font), increased brain activity occurs in a part of the frontal lobe called the anterior cingulate cortex, which alerts the person that they are off-track. The researchers found weaker activity occurring in this brain region during the Stroop task in those who had suppressed their feelings. In other words, after engaging in one act of self-control this brain system seems to fail during the next act.

These results, which appear in the November issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, have significant implications for future interventions aiming to help people change their behavior. Most notably, it suggests that if people, even temporarily, do not realize that they have lost control, they will be unable to stop or change their behavior on their own.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Self-regulation intervention boosts school readiness of at-risk children, study shows

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Learning from robots

Oct 29, 2014

In a Bavarian village, Mathias Hubrich is building remotely controlled robots designed to perform tasks too dangerous for human beings. Robots are now also being used as teaching aids because their Siemens ...

Recommended for you

Brains transform remote threats into anxiety

Nov 21, 2014

Modern life can feel defined by low-level anxiety swirling through society. Continual reports about terrorism and war. A struggle to stay on top of family finances and hold onto jobs. An onslaught of news ...

Mental disorders due to permanent stress

Nov 21, 2014

Activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. The effects of permanent stress on the immune system are studied by the ...

Could there be a bright side to depression?

Nov 21, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A group of researchers studying the roots of depression has developed a test that leads them closer to the idea that depression may actually be an adaptation meant to help people cope with ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

HarryStottle
not rated yet Oct 22, 2007
Seems to me that this is a naive study based on a false premise.

The false premise is that our tendency to pursue pleasure (eating too much, seeking intoxication etc) is a biological fault. It isn't. It is a biological design suited to the hunter gatherer phenotype we still possess.

Take Obesity, for example. The fact that we still have the urge to eat at every opportunity is not a biological mistake. It merely reveals the fact that our biology hasn't caught up with our sociology. But that is not a problem restricted to diet.

Our entire culture reflects the failure of the hunter-gatherer phenotype to adapt either biologically or socially to our exponential technological evolution.

This failure is most obvious in the field of conflict management mechanisms and social power structures which are still fundamentally based on testosterone and the Alpha male hierarchy.

"Just Say No" is an ironic example of precisely that outdated mindset.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.