Tabitha Gan underwent an internship at the Science Centre Singapore (SCS) in December 2014. She has written this blog post during her internship at SCS.
Your brain and self-control
People make them constantly. But a series of studies done by clinical psychologist John Norcross has shown that most people don’t manage to keep their New Year resolutions, and only 8% last until the end of the year. Why do people fail to keep their resolutions, and what can we do to improve our success rate?
Let’s look at the point of resolutions- to change behaviour. People want to become better versions of themselves and break away from their existing behavioural habits, or inculcate good habits into their lifestyle. People think they are rational. But much of their behaviour is usually influenced by forces which they aren’t consciously aware of.
Habits are powerful things which we may not think much of but they are more powerful than we credit them for. Researchers Bentler and Speckart suggested that sometimes habits predict future behaviour over and above intentions, and other studies on habits have shown that when habits are strong, your intentions have much less impact on your behaviour than when habits are weak.
Most people make resolutions related to self-improvement behaviours like exercising more and eating less, quitting smoking, drinking less, spending less and saving more – because their current habits don’t include these ideal behaviours, and their old habits are so strong that habitual behaviour overrules their good intentions.
Why do people fail to change their behaviours? According to David Neal et al.’s 2011 paper on habits and their cues, habits are context-specific, cue-specific, and according to another 2011 paper by researchers of Oklahoma State University, because we have limited general self-control.
Cues around you trigger habits- it habits are much easier to break when you’re in a novel situation i.e. a different country or new house because some of your old cues and contexts aren’t there to trigger your old habits. To break habits, you need to consistently exert self-control over certain behaviours until new habits are formed.
Tied to this is the concept of ego depletion and limited self-control. Researchers have found that generally, an individual has a pool of will-power used to deal with social influence, daily tasks, regulate emotions, manage work, and other regular behaviours. This pool is emptied a little every time you use it, resulting in self-control fatigue- at the end of a regular day people have little self-control left to consciously and intentionally evaluate and regulate their old behaviours.
The good news is, based on the studies headed by Matthew Galliot and Roy Baumeister’s and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, this can probably be temporarily replenished through the intake of glucose, and rest and sleep (which is probably why you haven’t become a full-fledged couch potato by now). Self-control can also be trained to increase over time. Some believe that whether depletion takes place or not, depends on a person’s belief on whether willpower is finite. So, are you going to set your resolutions for 2015?
The complex thinking processes of the human brain are not as straightforward as they seem, and are affected by several components like hormones, sleep, and emotions. Check out the Brain exhibition at the Science Centre Singapore to find out more about what goes on in your brain when you make decisions.