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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 02-Jul-10


Friday 02-July-10

Who's in control of the bus?

We all have deep need for a sense of control and the anxiety and panic of feeling out of control is distinctly unpleasant. On the other hand the sense of being in control is pleasant. We feel relaxed, powerful, confident.

One of the most important domains of control is our selves. We have all kinds of natural urges, from eating to aggression which we need to control and which can lead to inner conflict ('I'd like to punch him but I'd better hold back'). A problem we have with this is that when we are in the normal, non-urge state, we think we will be able to control our urges. The reality is that urges are deep and powerful motivators that are difficult to resist. This rational vs. 'urge state' has been called the "cold-to-hot empathy gap" and the mistaken belief we can manage our urges "restraint bias".

Loran Nordgren and colleagues investigated this inner battle. They first gave one group of students an easy memory task and another a hard one. Those on the easy task subsequently rated their ability to overcome mental fatigue more highly. A serious impact of this effect was that the also thought they could leave more of their coursework until the last week of term.

In a second study, students arriving or leaving the college cafeteria ranked seven snack bars from least favourite to favourite and then chose one to take away. If they brought it back uneaten the next week, they could keep the bar and also win $4. The leavers, who had already eaten and whose self-perception of restraint ability was therefore higher, were more likely to choose their first or second favourite snack bar, and were more likely to eat it during the following week.

In a third experiment some were given a fake self-control test then asked to watch the movie "Coffee and Cigarettes" whilst not smoking. They were promised a greater cash reward the more difficult they made the challenge for themselves. Those given good results on the test chose more tempting challenges, such as holding the cigarette in their hand rather than having it on the desk. They were also more likely to give in to that temptation.

In a further study with people in a 'quit smoking' programme, those who claimed more impulse control were found to be more like to relapse.

The bottom line is a warning: 'Restraint bias' is real. The more we believe we can control our urges, the more risks we take and the more we end up giving in to pressures from the subconscious. If you want to say 'No' to yourself, realise the danger and keep yourself out of temptation's way.

Nordgren, L., van Harreveld, F., & van der Pligt, J. (2009). The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behaviour. Psychological Science, 20 (12), 1523-1528 

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