Wednesday, 21 August 2013

How to improve self-control

Self-control is crucial for making good and sound decisions and for leading a successful life. Willpower is essential for making a career and for being well-off, but also for avoiding drug abuse or staying in good health. We already learned that self-control is to a large extent learned during childhood, but is there a way for adults to improve their levels of self-control?

A study by Malte Friese and Yves Schaffner from the University of Basel and Claude Messner from the University of Bern suggests that mindfulness meditation might help. Participants in their study had just participated in a three day introductory mindfulness meditation seminar. At the end of this seminar, all of them watched short film clips that elicited strong feelings of disgust. Afterwards, they completed an intermediate task, and finally, they completed a test assessing their concentration and inhibitory control. Participants were divided into three groups: Group 1 was allowed to show their emotions after watching the clip and performed a connect-the-dots task before completing the final test. Groups 2 and 3 were asked to suppress their emotions after watching the clip. Group 2 performed the same connect-the-dots task as Group 1 before completing the final test, while Group 3 meditated for three minutes before doing so.

When the researchers compared the performance of Group 1 (no suppression of emotions) to Group 2 (suppression of emotions, NO meditation), they found that performance in the suppression condition was impaired. This was not the case when comparing Group 1 to Group 3 (suppression of emotions and meditation). They come to the conclusion that “a brief period of mindfulness meditation may serve as a quick and efficient strategy to foster self-control under conditions of low resources”. They think the mechanisms behind this finding might either be an increase in self-awareness, which has been shown to reduce the effects of ego-depletion, or an increase in relaxation. They also outline that meditation has been shown to change activity in brain regions associated with self-control. Thus, increasing our state mindfulness seems to improve our self-control in the current situation. However, the authors also cite research that has found meditation training to lead to increased control and more efficient use of limited brain resources.

The original article was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. There is an article on this study and on what mindfulness is and how it works on Positive Psychology News Daily.

We have reported on ego-depletion after decision-making in our post “Tired of making decisions” and on the importance of self-control in our posts “What marshmallows have in common with health and wealth” and “Self-discipline outdoes IQ”.

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