This year, millions of Americans will pull out their lists of New Year’s resolutions, full of intentions to control their many temptations, from one-night stands to junk food to alcohol to smoking.
And 88 percent of those resolutions will probably end in failure.
We spend as much half of our waking lives feeling desires, and are able to resist about 38 percent of them.
That’s a lot of resisting.
But what are the costs of all that self-control? Roy Baumeister and colleagues suggest that self-control acts like a muscle; it’s a limited resource that can get tired from too much exertion. They argue that after people exert self-control, they enter a state called “ego depletion” in which the will is weakened.
This has wide-ranging consequences: Depleted people are more likely to overeat, display more aggression, cheat on their partners, spend more money impulsively, make irrational and uncompromising decisions, and generally respond in a myriad of unhealthy ways.
What’s the cause of these depletion effects? The long-held assumption is that depletion weakens the capacity for restraint, but leaves feelings and desires unaffected. In other words, our wellspring of desires and urges are separate from self-control and restraint.
New research suggests we need to rethink this assumption.
Across a number of unpublished studies in a wide range of real-life settings, Kathleen Vohsand colleagues found that controlling our impulses simultaneously weakens our restraint and intensifies our urges.