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Dr. Michael Inzlicht, University of Toronto - The Science of Self-Control

Is there a measurable limit to the amount of self-control each person possesses?

Dr. Michael Inzlicht, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, studies self-control and is helping to debunk a popular theory regarding the now widely studied topic.

Dr. Michael Inzlicht earned his Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Brown University, 2001. His work focuses on related lines of research, characterized by the integration of social, neuroaffective, and psychophysiological approaches. His research asks basic questions about self-control, where he takes a social neuroscientific approach to investigate the function, role, and psychological correlates of the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that serves to regulate both cognitive and emotional processing and important for self-control.


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Michael Inzlicht – The Science of Self-Control

Research on the science of self-control has exploded in the past decade, and although studied in many lights, one idea has received more attention than most—the idea that self-control is a limited resource.

If you don’t believe me, Google the terms “self-control” and “limited resource,” and try to wade through the over 19 million unique results. The idea that self-control is based on some limited resource is intuitive.

Just like your car consumes fuel to get from one point to another until there is no more fuel and no more driving, the argument goes that you consume some brain fuel to restrain your behaviors throughout the day until you reach a point where this fuel is used up and you are left without the ability to control yourself any further.

This sort of model supposedly explains why people tend to grab bags of chips and sit on the couch when they feel mentally exhausted. This idea may be intuitive and it may sound right, but it is dead wrong.

While it is true that people tend to become couch potatoes when they are fatigued, it is not that people cannot control themselves when tired; it is that they choose not to control themselves.

Research suggests that what changes when people are tired is the level and quality of their motivation; when people are fatigued they experience a change in motivational priorities such that they are less willing to work for the things they feel obliged to do and more willing to work for things they like to do.

The silver-lining here is that people may be able to increase their flagging levels of self-control by finding pleasure in the sometimes onerous, yet necessary activities of life. At best, the idea that self-control is limited is wrong; at worst, it is actually dangerous—the more we hear about this incorrect view; the less motivated we’ll be to exert effort when we sense that we’re tired.

Time to retire this flawed idea.

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