Magazine article Psychology Today

The Edge of Restraint

Magazine article Psychology Today

The Edge of Restraint

Article excerpt

A STUDENT ZONES out during an evening lecture. A babysitter loses composure after enduring one tantrum too many. An overworked bartender would rather mingle than make another cocktail. All would likely agree, as many scientists have, that our readiness to control our impulses and direct our behavior wanes when we do so repeatedly. The more contentious question is; Why?

Self-control may behave like a muscle. That's the metaphor psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues have long used to illustrate their idea that when we exercise self-control, we're burning a limited resource. Doing something that requires willpower, like taking a test or resisting a cigarette, wears down our capacity for selfcontrol, they say, so we automatically try to preserve it for important moments by using less of it.

Other researchers, though, dispute the very idea that our selfcontrol has limits. "It's not about capacity; it's about choices you make and the motives you have," says psychologist Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto. "Motivation can be switched on a dime." He proposes that as a product of evolution, our intentions pivot between what we feel we should do-like press on with a difficult task that promises an eventual payoff-and what we naturally want to do, like sleep, eat, mate, or pursue whatever intrigues us. …

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