Brain Restraint – Writing Promises on an Etch-a-Sketch
“I can resist everything except temptation.”
—OSCAR WILDE, LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN
This Time I Really Promise
Robert is a well-regarded pharmacologist who runs a clinic for diabetes patients in Orlando, Florida. Many patients of this clinic do not want to begin a regimen of insulin shots (due to the obvious reason: pain, and the stigma of having to take them) even though they have failed to control their blood glucose by other means. Weight loss offers the only real hope of eliminating their need for insulin, and patients will often beg for another chance to lose weight so they can avoid the need for shots. Nearly 100 percent of the time, in the pharmacologist’s experience, this cycle continues indefinitely (or until he stops it): At each appointment the patient will beg for another opportunity to begin losing weight and will express his or her seriousness “this time.”
But very few ever follow through. There is always a reason why they weren’t able to do it the last time, but they should be able to eat better/exercise more now that some small circumstance has changed (“we had family in town,” “I had a stressful situation with my sister,” “my job changed,” “I had a cold,” etc.). The cycle continues, and their health worsens.
Robert has an interesting technique he uses with patients caught in this cycle. He “stops the game,” so to speak, by taking the ball from the patient and initiating a negotiation. First, he clarifies with them whether they truly understand that they only have two options: lose weight or take insulin shots. When this is confirmed, he then asks them to commit to an amount of weight they intend to lose in the next month. The patient must come up with the number. He then asks them to commit to a particular day upon which they will be weighed to prove they lost the weight. Again, it’s up to them to pick the day. The important part about this step is that the patient is empowered to establish the goals. Then he asks them to firmly commit, then and there, that if they do not reach the goal by the date, they will begin taking insulin shots. Almost everyone at this point agrees to accept the terms of the negotiation.
What Robert knows from years of experience is that 90 percent of the patients will not lose the weight, but because they (and not he) established the goals and parameters, they will more easily accept the consequence. In effect, he is making them face their “game,” and by doing so stops the cycle. If a patient does lose the weight, then all the better—but if not, at least he or she will willingly receive the necessary treatment.
This is one example of chronic self-restraint failure, and also of an intervention strategy to prevent the consequences of the failure from causing even worse outcomes. If Robert took a hands-off approach to his patients’ situations, the cycle would no doubt continue, and for many of his patients the results would be catastrophic.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of relying on a skilled clinician like Robert to stymie the results of our self-control breakdowns, and what’s worse is that our brains are not natively tuned to offer much assistance. As any yo-yo dieter knows, when you severely cut back on calories, your brain responds by decreasing your caloric burn to keep you from starving to death (the fact that you were never in danger of starving to death doesn’t matter). When you deprive your body of carbohydrates, as with a restrictive protein diet, you will eventually crave them to the point of hyper loading and gaining more weight than you lost on the diet. For every aggressive move we make, our brains have a countermove. Ironic, isn’t it, since all the moves originate in the same place? Let’s explore a few restraint quirks and follies and see if we can’t get a better handle on the insanity.
All the Restraint You Can Eat
For six months you have worked really hard to stick to a diet, and it’s paying off. Not only have you lost weight, but now more than ever you’re better able to restrain your impulse to eat fattening foods. Your friends are telling you how impressed they are with your resolve, and truth be told you are feeling pretty damn good about yourself as well.
Which is why, around month seven, you decide that your impulse control is sufficiently strengthened that avoiding being around ice cream, nachos, chicken wings, soda—and all the other things you used to eat out with your friends—is no longer necessary. You’ve spent half a year changing the way you think about food and it worked. Maintenance won’t be difficult with a new mind-set. Time to live again!
I probably don’t have to end this story for you to know how it turns out. It’s a classic tragedy with which many of us are already too familiar. Pride comes before a fall, but even more often it’s our sense of inflated self-restraint that precedes a tumble into relapse.
Researchers from Stanford University, Northwestern University, and the University of Amsterdam teamed up to investigate the dynamics underlying why we repeatedly convince ourselves that we’ve overcome impulsiveness and can stop avoiding our worst temptations.1 This particular tendency toward self-deception is what psychologists call restraint bias, and four experiments were conducted under this study to test the hypothesis that it’s rampant in our bias-prone species.
In one of the experiments, people walking in and out of a cafeteria were approached with seven snacks of varying fattiness and asked to rank the snacks from least to most favorite. Once they finished ranking, participants were told to pick one snack, and further told that they could eat it at anytime they liked, but if they returned the snack to the same location in one week they’d receive five dollars and could also keep the snack. After choosing the snack, participants indicated if they would return it for the money, and then filled out a questionnaire that assessed their hunger level and impulse-control beliefs.
Participants who were walking into the cafeteria said they were hungry, and those leaving said they were full; so the first evaluation was whether those leaving with full stomachs would indicate stronger impulse-control beliefs—and they did. The next evaluation was whether the not-hungry participants claiming the most impulse-control would choose the most tempting (and most fatty) snacks. They did. Finally, would those who selected the most tempting snacks be least likely to return them a week later? Indeed, they were.
In another experiment, heavy smokers were asked to take a test to assess their level of impulse control. The test was bogus, designed only to label roughly half of the participants as having a high capacity for self control and half as having a low capacity. Being told which label they earned seeded participants with a self-perception in either direction.
Participants were then asked to play a game that pitted the temptation to smoke against an opportunity to win money. The goal of the game was to watch a film called Coffee and Cigarettes without having a cigarette. They could select among four levels of temptation, each with a corresponding dollar value: (1) keep a cigarette in another room: $5; (2) keep a cigarette on a nearby desk: $10; (3) hold an unlit cigarette in their hand throughout the film: $15; (4) or hold an unlit cigarette in their mouth throughout the film: $20. Participants earned the money only if they avoided smoking the cigarette for the entire movie.
As predicted, smokers told they had high self-control exposed them-selves to significantly more temptation than those told they had low self control. On average, low-self-control participants opted to watch the movie with a cigarette on the table; high self-controllers opted to watch with a cig in their hand.
The result: The failure rate for those told they had high self-control was massively higher than for the low-self-control group, to the tune of 33 percent versus 11 percent. Those who thought themselves most able to resist temptation had to light up three times as much as those who suspected they’d fail.
Can You Control Yourself Better Than a Chimp?
Coping with impulsivity is a more complicated ability than it appears, and for a long time we thought only humans could do it. If you put candy in front of a group of children and tell them that if they can resist eating it they will eventually receive even more candy, a few interesting behaviors will follow. Some of the kids will try to distract themselves by playing with toys or drawing as a way to cope with the frustration of delaying gratification (some of the kids will just give up and grab the candy). This is quite advanced problem solving behavior, which is why it was surprising to find out that chimpanzees can do it, too. Researchers showed a group of chimps a small pile of candy that was accumulating more candy as time passed by, but the candy was inaccessible to them. Then they gave the chimps a set of toys. Every so often they would allow the chimps to have access to the candy. Several of the chimps caught on that the longer they waited, the more candy would accumulate, so they distracted themselves with the toys to avoid grabbing the candy until they could get a hefty amount. The chimps became intensely focused on the toys when the candy became accessible, showing that they really were diverting their attention so they could get a bigger reward later.2
One way to view these results is as reinforcement of a very old cliche: We’re our own worst enemies. Restraint bias has a place high on the list of biases we stumble on routinely, and tripping on it once is no guarantee of not doing so again, and again…and maybe again. Dieters relapse, smokers relapse, anyone with anything approaching a compulsion relapses—usually more than once. This study suggests that part of this repetition is due to thinking we can handle more than we can.
Another takeaway is that an entire industry is based on bolstering impulse control. Self-help books and motivational speakers aplenty play on a dubious concept, that there’s a gold ring of restraint we all can reach—just follow X system to get there. But what this study suggests is that even if you think you’ve arrived “there,” you’ll eventually find out that “there” never existed. You were sold a mirage in the form of an inflated self-perception of restraint. Sorry, no refunds.
Common among couples who have been together for several years is the phenomenon of being able to finish each other’s sentences. After a while it becomes one of those “funny things couples do.” And if you notice, the phenomenon is especially true when one of the partners is trying to remember something; the other partner fills in blanks in the discussion with pieces of memories the other can’t recall. Psychologists studying how this works call it transactive memory—which simply means that over time relationship partners are able to rely on each other to remember things. They become a memory duo, sharing certain memories that neither one of them can reconstruct in total. In light of the brain’s energy conservation strategy, this arrangement makes a lot of sense.
As it turns out, something similar happens with self-control—and the news about this is both good and bad. The good news is that “transactive self-control” evidences a strong bond between partners and probably contributes to reaching long-term goals—such as the discipline to get a degree. The bad news is that it appears to undermine short-term self-control goals—such as losing weight. That was the conclusion from a study conducted by psychologists at Duke and Northwestern Universities testing the pros and cons of outsourcing self-control to romantically tied partners.4 The study showed that when someone expects a level of support from a partner to stick to a diet, for instance, that person will actually decrease their energy expenditure. The effect was especially strong for participants who were already worn out from other energy drains. Alongside that result, participants who relied on a partner for help with their studies procrastinated more than those who went it alone.
The reason, returning to a common theme, is energy conservation. Our brains are huge energy consumers (20 percent of our daily caloric intake fuels the brain) but stingy energy users. If an external resource is available to draw on instead of using stored energy, you can be certain the brain will want to tap it. Ironically, as this study suggests, doing so in the short term damages self-control by weakening our resolve to try as hard as we otherwise might. (This result should not, by the way, be misconstrued to contradict the public commitment findings discussed in the last post. In that case, the commitment is reinforced by others holding us accountable to achieve a goal, not helping us in any substantial way to get the work done.)
Flavors of Imagination That Deny Temptation
Think about chocolate. A nice big bar of especially delicious Belgian chocolate on a table in front of you, and it’s all yours. Imagine unwrapping it, smelling the sweet chocolate aroma, breaking off a piece, and bringing it to your mouth for a taste of ecstasy.
For most of us (aside from those who inexplicably don’t like chocolate), that description will kick up a craving for chocolate or something sweet. In fact, studies on self-restraint have found that the description need not be nearly so detailed. In one study, simply imagining placing thirty M&M’s® into a bowl significantly increased how many of the candies participants devoured afterward.5
But here’s the twist: When participants in the study were told to imagine eating M&M’s, they actually ate less of them—1.6 times less than the group that imagined placing them into a bowl. The reason seems to be that the brain’s response to a conjured image of placing or eating M&M’s is much like its response to the real thing. The anticipation of eating the candy drives up temptation, but the image of already chewing and swallowing M&M’s drains the energy out of the temptation.
The problem, of course, is staving off temptation long enough to visualize eating the target of our sweet lust before pouncing on it. Far easier said than done.
Oh, What the Hell
Here is something I frequently see, and admittedly do, on business trips. A large group sits around the table at a nice restaurant and a couple of people order several appetizers for the table to share and a couple bottles of wine to start things off in style. The appetizers come along with baskets of bread, also passed around and devoured. Then orders for the meal are taken and everyone gets a salad or soup to begin, followed by a steak or other rich dish. More wine follows. Afterward, most also order dessert and coffee to cap things off, if not a glass of port or grappa.
Before these dinners, I typically tell myself that I will have no more than one small appetizer and pass on the bread. Then I will order a salad with a not-too-terrible dressing followed by a semihealthy dish (at least compared to most) like fish. No dessert. No more than one glass of wine. That’s what I tell myself, but when the event begins, something peculiar happens. The appetizers arrive and they look delicious, and I am hungrier than I expected, so I have two or three samplings. Then the bread comes around and I think, “Well, I already ate more appetizers than I should have, so what the hell, might as well have a roll.” When ordering the entree, the “what the hell” effect elevates even more, and I just go ahead and order that juicy steak instead of fish. By this time, “what the hell” is the overriding sentiment and, having blown every self-control commitment so far, I feel fine about ordering dessert with coffee.
Notice the degeneration of control and how with each slipup, the following slipups became easier to make. And it’s also important to note that the “what the hell” effect isn’t just about self-control, but about failure to reach goals. Janet Polivy and her research team plumbed the depths of “what the hell” with an experiment featuring two delicious treats: pizza and cookies.6 The researchers invited 106 female participants to the study, some whom were dieting and others who weren’t, under the pretense that they would be tasting and rating a variety of cookies. They were all told not to eat beforehand and were served one slice of pizza when they arrived (exact same size piece for everyone), then asked to sample and rate some cookies.
Here’s the twist: A portion of the participants were made to believe that they had received larger or smaller slices of pizza than others. Some of the women got to see another person’s slice just before it was carried into that person’s separate test room. The slice in question was either one-third larger or one-third smaller than the actual one that the experimental subject was given to eat. In other words, some people were made to think they’d eaten more than the others; although in reality they’d all eaten exactly the same amount.
Then three enormous platters were brought out with piles of oatmeal-raisin, chocolate-chip, and double-chocolate-chip cookies. The participants were told that they could eat as many as they needed to rate the quality of the cookies. What they did not know was that the platters were weighed before and after they were brought out, so the researchers knew exactly how many cookies were eaten. When the cookies were weighed, it turned out that participants who were on a diet and thought they had already blown their calorie-restriction goal ate more of the cookies than those who weren’t on a diet—over 50 percent more. On the other hand, when dieters thought they were safely within their calorie limit, they ate the same amount of cookies as those who weren’t on a diet.
Again, it’s a matter of goals and our perception of how close or how far away from reaching them we are. The farther away we perceive our-selves to be slipping from the goal, the more “what the hell” thinking seeps in—and this tendency applies to a variety of goals besides dieting. Perhaps your goal is to stop smoking. You go two weeks without a cigarette, and one night find yourself at a party with friends, several of whom are lighting up. You think to yourself, I’ve made it two weeks, which is pretty good, so I can afford to have one smoke in a social setting. Later that night, your friends continue smoking and the party is still going strong, and you think,Well, I’ve already had one tonight, so what the hell, might as well have another. Before long you are wrestling with the fact that you have slipped well away from your goal and must start over again.
A Different Kind of Control
So far, everything we have discussed in this post has to do with applied restraint (or lack thereof), but there is an entirely different kind of self-control that we engage in without realizing it. First, a little story.
Elton is a philanthropist who specializes in raising funds to support children’s hospitals all over the world. In some cases, he works with local agencies to develop business plans to build a new hospital, often in a third world country where it is desperately needed. In other cases he works directly with potential funders to help them identify hospitals in need of support and work through the logistics of making sure the money is used effectively. Over the last fifteen or so years, he has helped raise nearly one billion dollars for children’s hospitals in fifty countries—the equivalent of helping more than one hundred thousand children get the vital care they needed and would not have received without a fully functioning children’s hospital in their region.
Ethical questions crop up during the course of Elton’s work. Certain investors aren’t as interested in supporting children’s health as they are in courting favor with local authorities, who, in light of the investments being made, are often more willing to overlook less commendable things the investors are involved in. Sometimes this means waving regulations, reducing taxes and fees, or, in more extreme cases, ignoring blatantly illegal activity. The philanthropist is usually aware that these things are happening, and sometimes his fee gets a boost if the activity in question is especially sordid. He knows, of course, why he’s getting more money, and he could turn it down. In fact, he could stop the deal altogether or at least refuse to participate. He doesn’t. In his mind, the scale is balanced. If he didn’t participate in the deals, the children’s hospitals wouldn’t be built and maintained. If he ignores unethical behavior, and even occasionally takes what amounts to a bribe to keep quiet, that’s okay, because on the other side of the seesaw he is doing noble work.
Elton’s thinking and behavior illustrates what psychologists in recent research have dubbed the “moral self-regulation effect”—the tendency to conduct a balancing act in our lives by doing something moral in one case to offset doing something wrong (or doing nothing at all) in another.7 When we do a moral act to offset an immoral one, we are engaged in “moral cleansing.” When we do nothing, or perhaps something perceived as immoral (because we feel like we have enough in the moral bank account to get away with it) we are engaged in “moral licensing.”
A great deal of “green” marketing is predicated on the assumption that people will buy a green product to make themselves feel better about moral deficiencies in other parts of their lives. Other forms of green messaging, such as expensive hotels asking patrons to reuse bath towels, use this same dynamic; nothing is offered to the patron in return for not using the towels other than a feeling of “doing good for the environment”—a feeling that will offset a sense of moral deficiency for not recycling at home (as an example). The hotel, meanwhile, benefits from reduced costs which add directly to its bottom line. (My purpose here is not to disparage worthwhile environmental campaigns, but only to show how the moral self-regulation effect is applied in real situations.)
The subtlety of this effect is on the level of background noise—it’s happening all the time and we rarely give it a second thought. The important point to remember is that we use mechanisms like moral self regulation to gain balance and feel more at ease with our place in the world. Balance makes the brain happy, and feeling at ease is whipped cream on the sundae.
We will come back to self-control machinations later in the book, but now we will turn to one of the more misunderstood cycles of thinking any of us experiences: the cycle of regret, and all emotions thereunto appertaining.
1. L. F. Nordgren et al., “The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of SelfRestraint Promotes Impulsive Behavior,” Psychological Science 20 (December 2009) : 523–28.
2. Theodore Evans et al., “Chimpanzees Use Self-Distraction to Cope with Impulsivity,” Biological Letters 3 (August 2007): 599–602.
3. D. M. Wegner et al., “Transactive Memory in Close Relationships,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61 (December 1991): 923–29.
4. Gráinne M. Fitzsimons et al., “Outsourcing Self-Regulation,” Psychological Science 22 (2011): 369–75.
5. Carey K. Morewedge et al., “Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption,” Science 10 (December 2010): 1530–33.
6. Janet Polivy et al., “Getting a Bigger Slice of the Pie: Effects on Eating and Emotion in Restrained and Unrestrained Eaters,” Appetite 55 (December 2010) : 426–30.
7. S. Sachdeva et al., “Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation,” Psychological Science 20 (2009): 523–28.