social sciences

Self-control a limited resource: muscle analogy

It has been proposed that self-control is a limited resource. Which means that our self-control would diminish over the day. From the moment we wake up, we’re faced with choices. What do you want to wear? What are you going to eat for breakfast? What time are you going to leave for school or work? And according to the muscle analogy, put forward by Baumeister, these choices get more difficult as the day progresses. We can’t use our muscles infinitely, just as we can’t use our self-control limitlessly. While there is new research that proposes that the muscle analogy might not be entirely accurate, I will describe one of Baumeister’s experiments that added scientific weight to the existence of his analogy.

An experiment with cookies and radishes
In 1998 a scientific article was published in which Baumeister was involved¹. His research team carried out different experiments to show that self-control is a limited resource. One of the experiments was carried out using cookies and radishes. The participants were 67 psychology students, who were told they were going to be studied on taste perception. This, of course, was a cover-up. When testing a hypothesis, you don’t want the test subjects to know what the researchers are looking for, as this might influence the results.
The researchers split the students into three groups, there was a control group (who didn’t eat any food), a radish group (they were asked to eat at least 2 or 3 radishes), and a cookie group (they were asked to eat at least 2 or 3 cookies). None of the participants were aware of belonging to a group and didn’t have a clue about what was actually being tested. And each participant was studied individually.But there is another catch! In the research room, they were baking cookies, so both participants in the radish group and cookie group were exposed to the delicious smell of fresh baked cookies.
Moreover, in the room, there was a bowl with cookies and a bowl with radishes. So, imagine you were assigned to the radish group and there is a delicious cookie aroma all around you, but you’re asked to only eat radishes. My wild guess is that if you had the choice, you would go for the cookies instead of the radishes. But the experiment doesn’t stop there! After eating radishes or cookies, the participants were asked to solve a puzzle. And again, there’s a catch. The puzzle is unsolvable.
The researchers compared the participants who were assigned to the different groups. In line with the muscle analogy, they found that those who were asked to eat radishes were more likely to give up easily. The researchers explain that this is due to the fact that they already had to exert self-control before the puzzle, which used up some of their self-control.

1. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(5), 1252.

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