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Virtue Fatigue: The Anatomy of Temptation


Consider the classic recipe for seduction: chocolates, dinner, wine, dessert, dancing. Ever wonder why it works? Now a series of psychological experiments led by Mark Muravan at Case Western Reserve University points toward answers: Our ability to self-regulate (a.k.a. our willpower) is not only limited; it tends to fatigue much like muscles do during exercise. More disturbingly, multiple challenges, temptations, and stresses all seem to deplete the same basic source of energy. Consider Muravan's studies using psychology students:

Participants took a standard test of self-control, squeezing a spring-loaded handgrip as long as they could, then watched three minutes of an emotionally wrenching film. During the film some participants were asked to elevate their emotional level and others to stifle their emotions. A control group did not attempt to regulate their emotions. Afterward, all three groups were retested with the handgrip. The controls showed no change, but both groups that tried to regulate their emotions fared worse. (Acting is exhausting work!)

Participants each wrote a paragraph on a specific topic. While they wrote, one group was instructed not to think about a white bear, another group was told to think about a white bear, and the control group received no such instructions. Afterward, all three groups tried to solve unsolvable anagrams. The group that tried to suppress their thoughts about the white bear was the first to quit.

Participants were asked to write accounts of two separate incidents: a time when they succeeded at controlling their emotions and a time when they failed. When analyzed, successful accounts of controlling emotions were likely to refer to times when the person felt either calm or energized. Accounts of failure were likely to refer to factors that suggested depleted capacity, such as being tired, drunk, under stress, or trying to make a good impression.

Muravan's work has many implications. For one, writing a list of New Year's resolutions seems likely to spread your willpower too thin. It also suggests that coping with major life changes, such as having a baby, may undermine self-regulation in other spheres. The researchers have also found preliminary evidence that self-control, like a muscle, ultimately gets stronger with use, while the ability to exert one's willpower seems to fade if not used.

Stephen Kiesling is a former Olympic rower, cocreator of the Nike Cross Training System, and editor at large of Spirituality & Health. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.

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