Science shows that self-discipline taxes the soul

We wisely use our ‘self-restraint muscle’ to get things done, but research shows that even exercising it just a little bit can turn the most robust of minds into momentary marshmallow

These days, identifying ‘natural-self-discipline’ very early on is widely acknowledged to be a much better predictor of future educational success than self-esteem, or even IQ, but it turns out that there is a price to pay in terms of ‘self-control fatigue’. Using willpower to overcome temptation can temporarily drain our mental resources, with potentially devastating results.

So it turns out that there’s a hidden side-effect when we engage in brain-taxing activities which require us to do such soul-destroying things as:

  • resisting overwhelming temptation
  • trying to solve fiendish puzzles
  • exercising painful judgement
  • struggling hard to make progress

All of these have the potential to make a definite and measurable impact upon something we might call ‘mental stamina’.

This impact can be unequivocally demonstrated by the fact that that doing anything which involves any one of these tends to leave less resource available for us when we subsequently tackle another, so that tests can reveal markedly reduced performance in the results of test subjects, where successive sets of demands are made upon their mental stamina (e.g., significantly reduced perseverance in problem-solving exercises which were undertaken directly after the test subjects successfully fought the temptation to eat irresistibly delicious-smelling freshly-baked chocolate cookies).

Research is also showing that it is possible to manage mental stamina, a prospect which offers both opportunities and dangers.

Engagement: sounds like apple pie, but somehow I knew it had a dark side

Clear dangers are apparent in the context of manipulation, where steps could be taken to ‘deliberately undermine judgement’ by introducing tantalizingly tempting but stamina-taxing (and hence ‘critical-judgement-impairing’) ‘participant engagement’ as a cynical maneuver in an attempt to ‘soften up’ a prospect (a ploy as old as the hills, but now, for the first time, backed up by science).

Attempts by unscrupulous operators to systematically identify and exploit vulnerabilities inherent in our mental stamina should now be something we can better equip ourselves to look out for and fortify ourselves against, in the light of these new findings.

This obviously doesn’t mean that engagement (or an attempt to introduce it into erstwhile engagement-free activities) is necessarily an insidious phenomenon, but it does mean that ‘caveat emptor’ is not something to be unreservedly abandoned in the face of a move towards engagement-based initiatives.

Even if concerns and criticisms about ‘engagement as distraction’ can be comprehensively overcome (because the engagement which has been introduced commendably avoids diverting the participant’s attention from matters which affect their own interests) there are still serious concerns that the engagement process should be equally scrupulous in terms of eschewing ‘softening-up by subliminally undermining mental stamina’ (please see the end of this article regarding suggestions for addressing these issues).

Managing our own mental stamina: it sounds like DIY brain surgery, but…

Armed with a more detailed understanding of how mental stamina works, this research opens up brand new opportunities to overcome our personal shortcomings and difficulties, both in terms of recognising and tackling some of our own hitherto intractably detrimental psychological predispositions, and also to offer better options when we find ourselves confronted by unprecedentedly challenging situations.

If the dangers of mental stamina manipulation sound just like something all-too easily implemented by those who are embracing gamifcation, then all is not lost, because the very same kinds of tools could also just as easily be developed to help us cope with such dangers, by providing us with resources which  enable us to conserve, replenish and strengthen our own mental stamina.

As an example of a kind of behaviour which enables us to do things without taxing our mental stamina, consider habits.

They offer the potential to render decision-intensive and judgement-demanding activities essentially ‘consciousness free’ and thus leave you able to ‘do them whilst on autopilot’ which not only ‘leaves your conscious mind available to focus on other things’, but also (in the context of this research into the impact of self-control) ‘leaves you mental batteries less drained’ so that you can more effectively respond to (and be left less mentally exhausted by) other mentally challenging demands, like resisting temptation enough to allow you to stick to your diet, or to refrain from putting off some difficult decision.

The relationship between habits and mental exhaustion cuts both ways

Just as you can now proceed (in the light of the research) to start setting up helpful habits (in order to prevent the kinds of unnecessary mental exhaustion which we have now discovered are what stop you doing certain things as well as you would otherwise be able to do) it turns out that it is the development of habits (including really bad ones) that is what the mind automatically does in order to avoid mental exhaustion.

In other words, although this research into willpower is quite new, the unconscious mind has already done at least some of it a long time ago.

Bad habits can also be a response to mental stamina issues 

Your unconscious mind already ‘gravitates towards’ behaviours which shield you from mental exhaustion (in the same way that the unconscious mind tries to shield you from any other kind of unpleasant experience) and those ‘unconscious protective behaviours’ that are generated by this kind of response inevitably include habits.

We tend to resort to more conscious endeavours such as dieting as a response to the undesirable consequences of ‘bad eating habits’ which themselves arise from unconsciously gravitating towards using ‘comfort eating’ as a ‘psychological painkiller’.

But when we try to use a conscious behaviour to disrupt the ‘unconsciously developed habit’ of overeating, such as a ‘temptation resisting’ weight reducing diet, we are inevitably bound to start a mentally exhausting fight with our desires.

So just to summarise, regular altercation with your appetite can produce a vicious circle:

  • it can leave you in some critical sense mentally exhausted as you battle the temptation to eat what you want, when you want it (the research indicates that this ‘mental resource depletion’ may be happening even when we don’t feel affected in this way)
  • this can lead you to under-perform in other activities (underperformance which, up until now, you may not have attributed to the impact of having exercised self-control earlier)
  • both of the above may in turn leave you in need of extra energy (additional blood sugar required by the brain in order to cope with stresses resulting from both the mental exertion of self-control and those arising from mental-stamina-exhaustion exacerbated performance-struggle) energy which successful exercise in dietary self-restraint may have ironically deprived you of
  • this ‘energy shortfall’ will in turn leave you in need of ’emotional pain relief’ as you find yourself struggling to cope with a sense of physical and emotional fatigue (relief which the mentally conjured prospect of delicious food inevitably torments you with)

This is not to say that none of these phenomena were recognised prior to the research, it is just that certain aspects were systematically measured for the first time, transforming what had been up until now anecdotal evidence into formally documented findings.

Some diet gurus also ‘get it’

So (as many diet gurus relentlessly tells us, perhaps because they also happened to have some intuitive insight into the implications of habits upon mental stamina for dieting) in response to this, we are told to do things like organising our life with ‘good habits’, like fruit, regular meal schedules, drinking water, smaller portions and frequent exercise: except that this may still require ‘temptation resistance’ (good habits don’t necessarily make bad habits seem less attractive).

The diet guru can similarly be expected to be quite diligent (as far as ‘managing self-control’ is concerned) in terms of telling you to ‘put things out of the way of temptation’ (like throwing away all your stocks of unhealthy snacks).

The take-away

Nonetheless, as far as I can see, the additional new (and crucial) point to be learned from self-restraint research is this:

Recognising the impact of self-restraint upon your level of mental exhaustion highlights the need to explore your own mental stamina systematically.

Exploring how to sustain and optimise your mental stamina is an urgent endeavour whose value extends well beyond any particular ‘self-control issue’ that you may be currently addressing.

It’s mental stamina homework time, folks!

To see if you have been paying attention and genuinely appreciated the implications, here are some exercises which IMHO, are aimed at changing things based upon the research that we have been discussing.

For game developers

Create a game which:

      • exposes the player to the phenomenon and impact of mental stamina depletion (of the performance of one decision-making or ‘self-control-involving’ task upon the performance of another mentally challenging task) in a way which leaves them with insight into their own responses and behaviour
      • helps the player appreciate how to develop and implement their own helpful ‘mental stamina sensitive’ diagnostic and optimisation strategies in their lifestyle and work activities and how to help others do the same

For gamification implementers:

Identify gamification strategies which:

      • enable the participant to recognise the indications, risks and undesirable consequences of manipulation based upon systematic attempts to subliminally exploit ‘mental stamina dynamics’
      • enable participants to identify, remediate and prevent mental stamina exhaustion as an intrinsic component of the engagement process that game dynamics are aimed at facilitating

If this article has sparked your interest in other research into other aspects of such things as habit formation in the context of engagement and gamification (if, for instance, like me, you are curious about how mental stamina issues can be addressed in terms of user motivation design) then you may be interested in this:

If you are looking for more information on self-control research:

Here are some links to papers that are relevant to the research in the self-control videos above: