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psychologist vol 25 no 2

february 2012

Self-control – the moral muscle Roy Baumeister on willpower and ego depletion

Incorporating Psychologist Appointments ÂŁ5 or free to members of The British Psychological Society

letters 94 news 102 careers 152 looking back 164

evolving the face of a criminal 116 a new kind of language 122 interview with Jo Green 126 can we be confident in our statistics? 128

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The British Psychological Society Contact The British Psychological Society St Andrews House 48 Princess Road East Leicester LE1 7DR tel 0116 254 9568 fax 0116 227 1314

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Associate Editors Articles Vaughan Bell, Kate Cavanagh, Harriet Gross, Marc Jones, Rebecca Knibb, Charlie Lewis, Wendy Morgan, Tom Stafford, Miles Thomas, Monica Whitty, Jill Wilkinson, Barry Winter Conferences Sarah Haywood, Alana James International Nigel Foreman, Asifa Majid Interviews Nigel Hunt, Lance Workman History of Psychology Julie Perks

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psychologist vol 25 no 2

letters A-level; e-professionalism; test copyright; horror; obituaries; and more


news and digest 102 new year honours; neuroscience and the law; dementia audit; polygraph trial; and nuggets from the Society’s free Research Digest service media the Leveson enquiry with Mark Sergeant, plus the best of the web in our expanded section

Self-control – the moral muscle Roy Baumeister on willpower and ego depletion





Evolving an identifiable face of a criminal Charlie Frowd, Faye C. Skelton, Chris Atherton and Peter J.B. Hancock


A new kind of language Paul Ibbotson discusses an emerging radical view of language acquisition


Great expectations Jo Green talks to Jon Sutton about birth and more


Methods: Can we be confident in our statistics? Thom Baguley on the difference between statistically significant and nonsignificant effects


february 2012

THE ISSUE Never go shopping hungry. Your willpower is sorely depleted, and you stand a good chance of ending up with bags full of impulse buys and a trolley full of treats. That’s the implication of research covered in typically fine style by Roy Baumeister in this issue (p.112). According to Baumeister, psychologists are bringing back the notion of willpower as a limited supply of energy that is used for control and self-discipline. Read on to discover how ‘the moral muscle’ is implicated in everything from judges’ parole decisions to premenstrual syndrome. I hope you are finding the 2012 additions to The Psychologist engaging and informative. Some welcome and positive feedback on the January issue was directed @psychmag and @jonmsutton in recent weeks. The Psychologist and Digest Policy Committee and I very much want and need this guidance in order to plot our course. We continue to do all in our power to keep everything shipshape, and we need all hands on deck as we set sail for exciting and uncharted waters. Nothing, not even painfully stretched metaphors, can sink us. Dr Jon Sutton

book reviews 132 understanding madness; music cognition; social development; marriage and family therapy; and more

152 careers and psychologist appointments we meet counselling psychologist Michael Sinclair and educational psychologist Julia Busch Hansen; featured job; latest vacancies, in print and online

society 138 President’s column; Lifetime Achievement Award; POSTnote; media training; Leveson Inquiry; out now in BPS journals; and more

the neurological and anecdotal evidence to suggest we really can feel others’ pain, from Claire Allely in the latest in our series for budding writers

new voices

looking back



the history of the idiographic/nomothetic debate, with Oliver Robinson one on one


…with Barbara Wilson

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‘Loving’ doubles charitable donations French researchers say that adding the text ‘donating=loving’ to a charitable collection box almost doubled the amount of money they raised. Nicolas Guéguen and Lubomir Lamy placed opaque collection boxes in 14 bakeries in Brittany for two weeks. All the boxes featured the following text in French: ‘Women students in business trying to organise a humanitarian action in Togo. We are relying on your support’, together with a picture of a young African woman with an infant in her arms. Some boxes had this additional text in French just below the money slot: ‘DONATING=LOVING’; others had the text ‘DONATING=HELPING’; whilst others had no further text below the slot. Different box types were placed in different bakeries on different days and the amount of money collected each day was recorded. The text on the donation boxes made a profound difference. On average, almost twice as much money was raised daily in boxes with the ‘donating=loving’ text, as compared with the ‘donating=helping’ boxes and the boxes with no additional text (€1.04 per day vs. €0.62 and €0.54; the effect size was d = 2.09). ‘Given the high effect size…we can conclude that evoking love is a powerful technique to enhance people’s altruistic behaviour,’ the researchers said. In contrast, the difference in the amount of money left in ‘donating=helping’ boxes and boxes without additional text was not statistically significant. Guéguen (Behavioral Sciences, Université de Bretagne-Sud, Vannes, France) and Lamy (Université de Paris) think that the word ‘loving’ acts as a prime, activating related concepts such as compassion, support and solidarity, and thereby encourages behaviour consistent with those ideas. Such an explanation would fit the wider literature showing how our motivations and attitudes can be influenced by words and objects without us realising it. For example, one previous study showed how exposure to ageing-related words like ‘retired’ led participants to walk away more slowly after an experiment. Other research found a poster of a pair of eyes on a wall led to greater use of an honesty box in a university canteen. Previous research by Guéguen and Lamy has further shown how asking a male passerby for directions to ‘Saint Valentine Street’ as opposed to ‘Saint In Social Influence Martin Street’ makes them subsequently more likely to help a nearby woman who’s had her phone stolen, presumably because of the automatic activation of romance-related concepts. Why should the text ‘donating=helping’ not have had a similar beneficial effect on giving behaviour? Guéguen and Lamy think this might be due to a compensatory counter-reaction against words that are perceived as too much like a command. Indeed, in French, the verb donner to donate is also used to order someone to do something. However, why this reactance should have happened with ‘donating=helping’ and not with ‘donating=loving’ isn’t entirely clear. Another reason for the impotence of the word ‘helping’, the researchers said, is its redundancy – it was really just repeating the plea for support in the main text. The measure of giving was crude, which is a weakness of the study. We don’t know whether the ‘donating=loving’ text led more people to donate, or to more generous giving among those people who donated. ‘Despite the shortcomings of our study, the results will no doubt be of interest to those involved in philanthropic planning and support assessment in the aresas of corporate giving, nonprofit organisations, charitable foundations, and grants,’ the researchers said. ‘Conducted in a field setting, the experiment demonstrates how a simple, low-cost intervention can increase charitable giving.’


Scientists’ struggles help inspire students In the Journal of Educational Psychology Science suffers from an image problem. Many students see the subject as too difficult, and they think scientists are aloof boffins with big brains. A new study out of Taiwan tests the benefits of teaching high-school physics pupils about the struggles of eminent physicists – Galileo, Newton and Einstein. Over the course of three computer-based lessons during one week, 88 low-achieving students were taught not just about the relevant theories developed by these characters but also about their frustrations and perseverance. For instance, they heard about Newton’s hard work and inquisitive nature (including his comment ‘I keep the subject constantly before me, till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into the full and clear light’), and they heard about Einstein’s efforts, but ultimate failure, in seeking to develop a unified field theory – an endeavour that he spent the last 25 years of his life working on. For comparison, a further 93 students completed the three computer-based lessons on the relevant theories but without any background information on the scientists, and 90 more completed a version in which they heard achievement-based background information on the scientists, including their key discoveries and dates. Learning about scientists’ struggles had several important benefits versus the other two conditions. Students in the

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Recovering patients describe battles with ‘anorexia voice’ In Psychology and Health struggles condition developed more rounded, less stereotypical images of the scientists, seeing them as people who worked hard. For students who had no initial interest in science, the information about struggles boosted their interest in the subject. Struggles-based background info also improved students’ delayed (a week later) recall of the theoretical material, and it increased their success at complex open-ended problem-solving tasks based on the lesson material. Huang-Yao Hong and Xiadong Lin-Siegler, who made these findings, think the benefit of struggle-based background info for students’ recall may have to do with helping the students to build connections between different key concepts, and with increasing their emotional and cognitive reactions to the course material. Similarly, the researchers think that the struggle-oriented background information helps students see the interconnections between theories, which aids complex problem-solving. Future research is needed to differentiate the effects of struggle-based information related to the scientists’ work and their personal lives. Also, the findings need to be tested in a different cultural context and over a longer time period. ‘By helping students see the real human struggles behind science, we can inspire greater interest and learning to benefit future generations of scientists,’ Hong and Lin-Siegler said.

People with anorexia find comfort in their illness at first, but then it becomes overpowering and they end up battling for control of their own minds. That’s according to Sarah Williams and Marie Reid, who conducted an online focus group and e-mail interviews with 14 people recovering from anorexia nervosa, aged 21 to 50 and including two men. A consistent theme to emerge was that anorexia at first provided a sense of control and identity. The participants recalled enjoying striving for perfection. They saw thinness as an ideal that was within their means to reach. ‘Anorexia became a friend,’ said Natalie,* ‘When I was alone… I knew that at least I had A.’ Jon said: ‘It was a way to control what was happening to me on a day-today basis, and also my weight.’ Eventually though, rather than being a solution, anorexia became a problem all of its own. Said Lisa: ‘I call my anorexia “the demon” who controls my thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions.’ Jon: ‘It’s like there are two people in my head: the part that knows what needs to be done and the part of me that is trying to lead me astray. Ana is the part that is leading me astray and dominates me.’ ‘Having developed the anorexic voice, participants came to feel that it was to an extent split from their authentic selves,’ said Williams and Reid. The research pair explained how their findings, placed in the context of similar results from past studies, provided useful ideas for therapeutic

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intervention. In particular, they suggested the need for recovering anorexia clients to acknowledge other positions beyond the anorexia voice and their own authentic self. ‘Wellness cannot simply be the absence of anorexia nervosa symptoms because this can intensify the inner battle with the anorexic voice,’ they said. Williams and Reid advised using therapy to help build clients’ sense of self. ‘This study suggests that this means developing the self beyond an ambivalent conflict between the authentic self and the anorexic voice,’ they said. ‘This would allow a new more positive dominant position to develop.’

One approach that may be particularly suitable, according to Williams and Reid, is emotion-focused therapy (EFT). A technique used in EFT is for clients to address an empty chair, which represents their critical ‘anorexia voice’. With the aid of the therapist, this can lead to a softening of the anorexic critic and the fostering of a new dominant position in the self. However, the researchers cautioned that there are ‘as yet…no studies investigating the efficacy of externalisation techniques such as those used in EFT and this warrants further attention.’ * The names used here are the pseudonyms that appear in the paper.

The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog at, and is written by its editor Dr Christian Jarrett. Visit the blog for full coverage including references and links, additional current reports, an archive, comment and more. Subscribe by RSS or e-mail at Become a fan at Follow the Digest editor at If you are interested in psychology in the workplace, remember that there is also the Society’s Occupational Digest blog at, and on Twitter at @occdigest.



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The only way is ethics Mark Sergeant on the Society’s response to the Leveson Inquiry he phone hacking scandal dominated T the headlines for several months (as I reported in the September ‘Media’ page), and in the aftermath David Cameron established the Leveson Inquiry to review the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press ( Lord Justice Leveson, the Chairman of the Inquiry, will specifically examine the links between the press and the public, police and politicians. A range of witnesses will provide evidence, under oath and in



Karyn McCluskey: the psychologist who took on Glasgow’s gangs Uta Frith interviewed about her pioneering research into autism and dyslexia Psychology’s growing library of podcasts Campaign warns against deathly silence on suicide What could make psychologist Chris French let out a guttural, melancholy moan? Bite-size science, false positives and citation amnesia ‘Discovering autism’ series in LA Times Ruby Wax’s social networking site for people with depression David Cameron’s science lesson, including from Sarah-Jayne Blakemore Psychologist uses superhero comics to treat gang members Does funding favour mediocrity over grand ideas? Psychologists and ‘game transfer phenomenon’


The Media page is coordinated by the Society’s Media and Press Committee, with the aim of

public, including newspaper reporters, management, proprietors, policemen and politicians of all parties. Lord Justice Leveson began hearing evidence on the 14 November with a statement that ‘The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?’ The Inquiry will make recommendations on the future regulation of the UK press. The focus will be on maintaining the freedom of the press while at the same time ensuring they observe the highest ethical and professional standards. The Inquiry itself will be composed of four interlinked modules. Module 1 looks at the relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour. Module 2 examines the relationships between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest. Module 3 reviews the relationship between press and politicians. Module 4 debates recommendations for a more effective policy and regulation that supports the integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical standards. In December, the British Psychological Society made a submission to the Leveson Inquiry ( Members of the Society who contributed to the submission were: Dr Carole Allen (President), Dr Cynthia McVey, Professor John Oates, Dr Ceri Parsons, Dr Sinead Rhodes and myself (Dr Mark Sergeant). The Society’s submission primarily relates to Module 1 of the Inquiry, the relationship between the press and the public, although some of the evidence is also relevant to Module 4 on media ethics.

promoting and discussing psychology in the media. If you would like to contribute, please contact the ‘Media’

page coordinating editor, Ceri Parsons (Chair, Media and Press Committee), on

The Society’s submission echoes a submission by the Science Media Centre ( that a substantial amount of the UK media coverage of psychological issues, and science stories more generally, is accurate and balanced. This is due to the skill and dedication of the specialised health and science journalists employed in the national press. Indeed a few years ago I had the pleasure of working with the Science Media Centre, as part of a British Science Association media fellowship, through which I had the opportunity to meet the majority of these specialised journalists. Regardless of the publication they worked for, they were all professional individuals committed to the accurate and responsible reporting of health and science stories. However, the decision about what material makes it into the papers, and the way that it is presented, is usually taken by the editorial team who are primarily concerned with circulation figures. There are implications arising from the occasionally overly simplistic and sensationalised reporting of psychological topics. For example, a 2010 article published in the Daily Mail entitled ‘Depression? It’s just the new trendy illness!’ ( advised suffers with depression to ‘Get a grip, girls!’. The combination of a sensationalised headline and insensitivity has the potential to be highly distressing to those diagnosed with depression. A reply under the article by Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the Rethink Mental Illness charity, highlights some of the potentially misleading claims. In addition, the Society’s submission to the Leveson Inquiry highlights the need to consider the ethical well-being of individuals involved in broadcast media. It is presumed that members of the general public who willingly become involved with the broadcast media, especially those which fall under the category of reality TV, are aware of the consequences of such exposure. However, such individuals may not be explicitly aware of what is expected of them nor fully appreciate the potentially negative outcomes, particularly if they are psychologically vulnerable. These issues can particularly arise in programmes where there is some review of an individual’s lifestyle or life choices, where the friends and family of such an individual can become the focus of media activity. The Society has issued advice to psychologists who may be advising production companies and broadcasters (via In short, the Society called on

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Leveson to consider that psychologyrelated stories should be reported in an accurate and balanced way, considering the psychological implications of news and features, both for the individuals involved and for the general public. Furthermore, the Society supports the view of the Science Media Centre that there should be a change to the Press

Complaints Commission rule stating that only an individual scientist can complain about an inaccurate story. The scientific community must be able to make complaints about inaccurate articles which damage the public interest. This would allow professional bodies, such as the Society, to support their members more fully.

The master of illusion There are some fantastic science journalists out there who regularly write about psychology. A special mention should go to Hannah Devlin, who has in the past worked for the Oxford Centre for fMRI and who has recently been appointed Science Editor for The Times. But this month I would like to highlight the prolific and talented Ed Yong, who blogs at Discover magazine under the banner ‘Not exactly rocket science’. A piece by Yong for Nature in December serves as a great exemplar (see Yong travelled to


Henrik Ehrsson (centre) and team

Stockholm to meet neuroscientist Henrik Ehrsson, who uses mannequins, rubber arms and virtual reality to create body illusions ‘to probe, stretch and displace people’s sense of self’. The storeroom in Ehrsson’s lab is stuffed with mannequins, disembodied dolls’ heads, fake hands, cameras, knives and hammers. ‘It looks like a serial killer’s basement’, writes Yong. ‘The other neuroscientists think we’re a little crazy,’ Ehrsson admits. As Yong writes, the feeling of body

ownership is so ingrained that few people ever think about it – and those scientists and philosophers who do have assumed that it was unassailable. ‘Yet Ehrsson’s illusions have shown that such certainties, built on a lifetime of experience, can be disrupted with just ten seconds of visual and tactile deception. This surprising malleability suggests that the brain continuously constructs its feeling of body ownership using information from the senses – a finding that has earned Ehrsson publications in Science and other top journals, along with the attention of other neuroscientists.’ Headsets, cameras or fake body parts are used to fool the eyes, and synchronous strokes and prods add a tactile clincher. In 2007, Ehrsson reported that he had used such props to convince subjects that they had left their own bodies. A year later, he convinced them that they had acquired a new one, and, in his latest trick, that they had jumped into a tiny Barbie doll. Ehrsson thinks such illusions depend on ‘multisensory’ neurons. ‘We think these circuits are important, not just for representing external objects, but representing your own body and the boundary between your body and the world.’ Yong does a superb job of explaining these complex procedures and what the resultant illusions actually feel like, as well as the scientific and practical implications of the research. ‘Ownership illusions could help people to take control of entire alien bodies, both virtual and robotic,’ he writes, ‘in a way that would afford a finer degree of control than the joysticks and other controllers used to steer robots and avatars today.’ He concludes: ‘It sounds far-fetched, but so does most of what Ehrsson has achieved so far. “We’re working on it,” he says. “Then again, it might be impossible.”’ Yong always conveys the sense of wonder and possibility that characterises great science, and great writing. We are lucky to have such talented eyes surveying our discipline. JS

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MEDIA CURIOSITY Music is a form of media that doesn’t get a lot of attention in these pages, despite its clear capacity to reflect psychological themes. With this in mind, I would like to bring your attention to a long-running project by electronic musician James Kirby under the moniker ‘The Caretaker’, who attracted numerous reviews recently for his album ‘An empty bliss beyond this world’. Initially inspired by the haunted ballroom scene in the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining, The Caretaker has shifted attention onto the brain’s function in recalling memories. Inspired by research by neurologist Brandon Ally suggesting that Alzheimer’s patients are better able to recall information when it’s placed in the An empty bliss context of music, beyond this world ‘An empty bliss…’ tackles amnesia and is built entirely from layers of sampled pre-war parlour-room 78s. It’s psychedelic, beautiful, melancholy and intriguing, and as one review says: ‘Kirby isn’t just making nostalgic music, he’s making music that mimics the fragmented and inconclusive ways our memories work.’ The Caretaker’s previous releases include the monumental ‘Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia’. Definitely worth a listen, via JS

MEDIA TRAINING 12 March Intro to media £200 +VAT (BPS) 30 April Broadcast £300 +VAT (BPS) For more information, see p.140 Contact


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psy 02_12 p112_115 baumeister_Layout 1 17/01/2012 11:02 Page 112

Self-control – the moral muscle Roy F. Baumeister outlines intriguing and important research into willpower and ego depletion



Baumeister, R.F. & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin.


How can people harness their natural but limited powers to get the most out of life?


The capacity of the human mind to alter its own responses is one of the wonders of nature. It is a vital foundation for culture, progress, achievement, morality and individual success. This article provides an overview of a research programme that has been pursued for the past two decades. It has led the researchers to bring back the Victorian notion of willpower as a limited supply of energy that is used for control and self-discipline – and several other important phenomena, including making decisions. Self-control processes link together mind with body, present with future and past, resisting temptation with making choices, and a remarkably wide range of daily activities with each other.


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, 1252–1265. Baumeister, R.F., Campbell, J.D., Krueger, J.I. & Vohs, K.D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?

hat is the most important and desirable trait? What would you most wish your child to have, or your rivals to lack? What trait is most important for helping people lead happy, successful and useful lives? Decade after decade, psychologists keep coming up with the same two answers. One is intelligence. The other is self-control. Nothing else comes close. Early in my career I studied selfesteem, which in the 1970s and 1980s seemed to hold the promise of being a powerful key to mental health and successful behaviour. But self-esteem ultimately disappointed most of us: its benefits are quite limited (see Baumeister et al., 2003). So for the past two decades my research has focused on self-control . People use self-control quite frequently. A recent study (Hofmann et al., in press) had 200 people wear beepers for a week, and at random intervals they were asked to report on whether they felt any desire, and if so how strongly, whether they tried to resist it, and how successful that resistance was. Out of 10,000 responses, 7000 desires were reported. Efforts at self-control were common: people reported resisting two out of every five desires. Thus, much of the average day is spent trying to control one’s wants and needs. What’s more, this resistance was often successful. With no resistance, people enacted 70 per cent of their desires; with resistance the rate dropped to only 17 per cent. Self-control is what people use to restrain their desires and impulses. More precisely, it can be understood as the

Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 1–44. Baumeister, R.F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C.N. & Oaten, M. (2006). Selfregulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74, 1773–1801. Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F. (1981).

capacity to override one response (and substitute another). It is largely synonymous with ‘self-regulation’, a term preferred by many researchers because of its greater precision. To regulate is to change; namely, change in the direction of some standard, some idea about how something could or should be. Selfregulation thus means changing responses based on some rule, value or ideal. Most self-regulation occurs in one of four spheres. People regulate thought, such as trying to concentrate or shut an annoying tune out of their minds. They regulate emotion and mood, such as when trying to feel better. They regulate impulse, such as when resisting temptation. And they regulate performance, such as by trading off speed and accuracy, or persevering despite a discouraging failure.

How self-control works Self-control depends on multiple processes. Pioneering work by Carver and Scheier (e.g. 1981) applied feedback-loop theory to self-regulation. People compare their current status to the standard, make appropriate changes, compare again, and

Participants, after skipping a meal, had their hunger further stoked by seating them in front of a tray of freshly baked cookies

Attention and self-regulation. New York: Springer. Danziger, S., Levav, J. & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pnas.1018033108 DeWall, C.N., Baumeister, R.F., Mead, N.L., & Vohs, K.D. (2011). How leaders self-regulate their task

performance: Evidence that power promotes diligence, depletion, and disdain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 47–65. DeWall, C.N., Baumeister, R.F., Stillman, T. & Gailliot, M.T. (2007). Violence restrained: Effects of self-regulation and its depletion on aggression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 62–76. Finkel, E.J., DeWall, C.N., Slotter, E.B. et

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exit the loop when the need for change has been satisfied. My work has focused on the processes of change, and has shown that successful self-control depends on a limited energy resource. The folk notion of willpower is not far off the mark. When people exert self-control, they use up some of this energy, leaving them in a temporarily depleted state. If they try to exert selfcontrol again soon after – even in some sphere unrelated to the first exertion – they tend to do worse than if they had not previously exerted self-control. Thus, self-control is like a muscle that gets tired. People may start the day fresh and rested, but as they exert self-control over the course of the day, their powers may diminish. Many researchers have observed that self-control tends to break down late in the day, especially if it has been a demanding or stressful day. Most diets are broken in the evening, sexual misdeeds and addictive relapses occur at the end of long and demanding days. In some cases, there are more temptations available in the evening than the morning – though that may just reflect the marketplace adapting to where its customers are. Some of our first experiments supported the view of self-control as a limited resource. In one, participants arrived at the lab after skipping a meal, and their hunger was further stoked by seating them in front of a tray of freshly baked cookies and candies. Also in front of them was a bowl of radishes. Some were told that their task was to eat only the radishes and not the sweets. They were left alone for five minutes, ostensibly to do their radish tasting, but the real point was to make them struggle to resist eating the sweets. There were two control conditions, one of which was told to eat the sweets (and not the radishes), and the

al. (2009). Self-regulatory failure and intimate partner violence perpetration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 483–499. Gailliot, M.T. & Baumeister, R.F. (2007). Self-regulation and sexual restraint: Dispositionally and temporarily poor self-regulatory abilities contribute to failure at restraining sexual behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 173–186.

other skipped the food part of the study altogether (Baumeister et al., 1998). Later, all participants were given some difficult (in fact unsolvable) puzzles, and we timed how long they kept trying until they gave up, a procedure adapted from stress research. Trying over and over despite discouraging failure takes inner strength, including the self-discipline to persevere instead of quitting so as to go do something more pleasant. We found that the participants in the radish condition gave up significantly faster than those in the control conditions. Apparently, resisting the temptation to eat sweets took something out of them – depleted their willpower – leaving them with fewer resources to persevere on the next, seemingly unrelated task. Over the next decade, many more studies of this sort were done. A metaanalysis by Hagger et al. (2010) combined results from 83 such studies and confirmed the general pattern of what has come to be called ‘ego depletion’ – the idea that selfcontrol or willpower is an exhaustible resource, and that if it is used up, mental activity requiring self-control is impaired. The term ‘ego depletion’ was chosen in part as homage to Freud, because he was one of the last theorists to discuss the self in terms of energy. By the 1980s and 1990s, most self theories had emphasised information and concepts, not energy. But our work indicates that one important part of the self is the well of energy that it expends when it regulates its responses. Two important implications of these findings require emphasis. First, all selfcontrol tasks draw on the same energy resource. That is, when you, for example, hold your tongue, resist an urge to smoke, drink or eat, restrain aggression, postpone using the toilet, feign mirth at an inane joke, push yourself to keep working, it depletes some crucial energy and leaves you with less available for meeting the next challenge. Many seemingly unrelated things are therefore linked in this regard. Second, willpower is limited. In the radish study, five minutes of resisting the temptation to eat chocolate cookies

Gailliot, M.T., Baumeister, R.F., DeWall, C.N., et al (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 325–336. Gailliot, M.T., Hildebrandt, B., Eckel, L.A. & Baumeister, R.F. (2010). A theory of limited metabolic energy and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms: Increased metabolic

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produced a drop of ten minutes in how long people persevered at a stressful task. Thus, even just minor exertions of selfcontrol can make a substantial difference.

Extending the strength model Self-control resembles a muscle in more ways than one. Not only does it show fatigue, in the sense that it seems to lose power right after being used, it also gets stronger after exercise. (The fatigue effect is immediate; the strengthening is delayed, just like with muscular exercise.) After people perform exercises designed to strengthen self-control for a couple weeks, they do better on lab tests of selfcontrol (even ones completely different from what they exercised) and report improvements in multiple spheres of their lives (for review, see Baumeister et al., 2006). Smokers who strengthened their self-control by doing handgrip muscle exercises or avoiding sweet foods were later more successful than others at quitting smoking (Muraven, 2010). How much willpower do people have? It might seem that they do not have much, given that ego depletion effects begin after just a few minutes of exerting self-control. But this is misleading, and again the muscle analogy is helpful. When athletes exert their muscles, they get tired gradually. After some exertion, they begin to conserve their remaining energy (which may be considerable). Hence fatigue effects can show up relatively early, whereas complete exhaustion of the muscles is rarely seen. Ego depletion effects are mostly conservation effects rather than exhaustion effects. Muraven et al. (2006) showed that even after people become depleted they can perform well if there is a compelling reason to do so – but then they are much more depleted if another demand for selfcontrol comes along. Like a tired athlete who summons up a great exertion for the last lap, they allocate their resources judiciously once these begin to be depleted. Muraven et al. (2006) also showed that people hold back more when

demands during the luteal phase divert metabolic resources from and impair self-control. Review of General Psychology, 14, 269–282. Hagger, M.S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N.L.D. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 495–525. Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R.F., Foerster, G. & Vohs, K.D. (in press). Seven

thousand desires: Desire, conflict, and control in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Mead, N.L., Baumeister, R.F., Gino, F. et al. (2009). Too tired to tell the truth: Self-control resource depletion and dishonesty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 594–597. Muraven, M. (2010). Practicing selfcontrol lowers the risk of smoking lapse. Psychology of Addictive


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they expect subsequent demands than when they think they are confronting the final demand.

What gets depleted? Willpower is folk term and a metaphor for psychological processes. What is the actual process? By accident, my research group stumbled on an important key to the physiology of willpower. Glucose is a chemical in the bloodstream. It is ‘brain fuel’ in the sense that it provides energy for brain activities. Neurotransmitters are made from glucose. Glucose is also used to furnish energy for much of the body’s other activities, including muscular exertion and even the immune system. Glucose is made from nutritious food (not just sugar) and either used or stored for later use. Our interest in glucose began when an experiment on another hypothesis went awry. We were testing the alluring hypothesis that if resisting temptation weakened self-control, maybe yielding to temptation would strengthen subsequent self-control. Participants underwent a depleting exercise in self-control, and some were given a bowl of ice cream to eat. Sure enough, the people who enjoyed this pleasant indulgence showed an improvement in self-control performance on the next task. Unfortunately for that hypothesis, we included a control condition in which people consumed a large portion of tedious, unappetising food, which hardly constituted a pleasant indulgence – and they also showed an improvement in self-control afterwards. This got us to wondering, if the recovery of willpower was not attributable to the pleasure, could it be simply the calories? A series of experiments confirmed that willpower is tied to glucose (Gailliot et al., 2007). After people exert self-control, even on artificial lab tasks, their blood glucose levels drop. Low levels of blood glucose predict poor performance on tests of selfcontrol. Most dramatically, the effects of ego depletion can be counteracted by giving people a dose of glucose.

Behaviors, 24, 446–452. Muraven, M., Shmueli, D., & Burkley, E. (2006). Conserving self-control strength. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 524–537. Pocheptsova, A., Amir, O., Dhar, R. & Baumeister, R.F. (2009). Deciding without resources: Resource depletion and choice in context. Journal of Marketing Research, 46, 344–355.


The link to glucose provides a new perspective on self-control. For example, a recent study showed that the decisions of judges regarding parole fluctuate over the day in a manner that suggests ego depletion and glucose (Danziger et al., 2011). Sending a convict back to prison is the safe and easy decision, whereas granting parole puts the judge at risk, because if the parolee commits another crime, the judge will look bad and possibly be blamed. It therefore takes more energy to grant parole than to deny it. Judges get depleted as they make decision after decision. Hence a convict applying A convict whose case comes up just before lunch for parole fares reasonably well first thing in the morning, when the judge has a near zero probability of being paroled is fresh and well-fed, but as the morning wears on, the chances go down. The judges then have a break for forth. In other words, PMS is not a matter a mid-morning snack, and another for of new antisocial impulses but rather a lunch, and their rates of granting parole wholesale weakening of restraints, caused shoot up dramatically at these points – and by the body’s relative lack of glucose then resume dropping. A convict whose available for self-control. case comes up just before lunch has a near zero probability of being paroled, whereas When willpower is low one who comes before the board right after Researchers have illuminated many of lunch has a good (65 per cent) chance of the effects of ego depletion on a wide getting out of prison. assortment of behaviours. Some are Glucose may also hold a key to standard foci of self-control. As a standard understanding premenstrual syndrome example, dieters eat more fattening food (PMS). Folklore suggests that PMS occurs when their willpower has been depleted because women mysteriously acquire (Vohs & Heatherton, 2000); and the same antisocial impulses and tendencies at a study showed no change in eating among certain time each month. Instead, Gailliot non-dieters. Thus, depletion only alters et al. (2010) proposed that the extra behaviour when people are trying to metabolic demands of the luteal phase restrain or control it. Dieters wish to of the menstrual cycle siphon off a large restrain their eating, and so ego depletion portion of the body’s glucose supply, makes them eat more. In a similar vein, leaving less available for self-control. aggression increases with ego depletion – (Many women eat more during this stage, but only among people who have been but most do not increase their caloric provoked and angered and therefore have intake enough to offset the extra metabolic aggressive impulses that they would demands of the reproductive system). normally restrain (DeWall et al., 2007). Hence the self-discipline and restraint that Aggression is of course a particularly normally manage the woman’s behaviour prominent social problem as well as a are harder to sustain, and a broad variety professional concern of many of breakdowns occur – aggression, petty psychologists. In 2011 I attended the crime, smoking, drinking, overeating, conference of the Division of Forensic emotional outbursts, drug use, and so

Richeson, J.A. & Trawalter, S. (2005). Why do interracial interactions impair executive function? A resource depletion account. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 934–947. Schmeichel, B.J., Vohs, K.D. & Baumeister, R.F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: Role of the self in logical reasoning and other information processing. Journal

of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 33–46. Vohs, K.D. & Baumeister, R.F. (2008). Why self-control supports good relationships: Evidence that couples treat each other badly when resources are depleted. Manuscript in preparation. Vohs, K.D. & Baumeister, R.F. (2010). Active initiative requires self-control resources. Manuscript submitted for

publication. Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F., Schmeichel, B.J. et al (2008). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 883–898. Vohs, K.D. & Heatherton, T.F. (2000). Self-regulatory failure: A resourcedepletion approach. Psychological

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Psychology of the British Psychological Society and had lively discussions with researchers and practitioners interested in domestic violence. Laboratory and field studies by Finkel et al. (2009) have shown that even nonviolent couples tend to treat each other in more abusive ways when their self-control resources are depleted. Fortunately, that work also showed that strengthening willpower via self-control exercises reduced the tendency to engage in intimate partner violence. Even apart from violence and abuse, close relationships benefit from self-control (Vohs et al., 2011), and good practices deteriorate when willpower is depleted. Intimate partners in good relationships often shield their partners from blame, but under ego depletion they start to blame their partners more (Vohs & Baumeister, 2008). Depletion makes them also pay more attention to attractive members of the opposite sex, which could increase their temptation to stray (Vohs & Baumeister, 2008). Sexual inhibitions are also reduced during ego depletion, making people unusually willing to do sexual things they would normally resist (Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007). Likewise, most people normally restrain their prejudices, but these are more likely to emerge when people are depleted, and restraining prejudice can deplete people so that their self-control suffers in other domains (Richeson & Trawalter, 2005). Exercising self-control can help people restrain their prejudices, as can a dose of glucose (Gailliot et al., 2007). Self-control has been called the ‘moral muscle’ because it provides the power to do what is right. Not surprisingly, virtue deteriorates quickly under ego depletion. Experimental studies have shown that people become more willing to cheat and steal when depleted (Mead et al., 2009). Another easily overlooked application of willpower is for thinking. To be sure, some thought processes are automatic and therefore require minimal energy, but strenuous and demanding forms of thought such as logical reasoning and

Science, 11, 249–254. Vohs, K.D., Finkenauer, C. & Baumeister, R.F. (2011). The sum of friends’ and lovers’ self-control scores predicts relationship quality. Social and Personality Psychology Science, 2, 138–145.

extrapolation require disciplined mental effort. People’s IQ scores dropped substantially under ego depletion, as did their performance on other tests of logic, though rote memory and other automatic processes were unaffected (Schmeichel et al., 2003).

Beyond self-control The processes by which the human body uses its central energy supply to override its responses and regulate its actions are clearly an important part of the human self. Yet perhaps those processes have even wider applications than just selfcontrol. One turning point came in a “people become paper by Vohs et more willing to al. (2008). That article showed cheat and steal that making when depleted” choices and decisions depletes the self: after making decisions, self-control was impaired. A companion paper a year later by Pocheptsova et al. (2009) reversed the sequence and showed that after exerting self-control, decision making was altered in various ways. Depleted deciders were less prone than others to compromise and more prone to fall prey to irrational bias. They also showed some tendency to duck or postpone decisions if they could. The implication is that making decisions draws on the same (glucose) energy that is used for self-control. Possibly this could help explain the endless stream of news stories about politicians and other authority figures who get caught up in sex scandals or other forms of misbehaviour: they expend their energy making decisions, leaving them without enough for ordinary self-control. Lab work has in fact shown that leaders pour extra energy into their work, often rendering them more depleted than other people (DeWall et al., 2011). Unpublished work also suggests that initiative is depleting. After exerting selfcontrol, people tend to respond in passive ways and take default options (Vohs & Baumeister, 2010). The combination of self-control, decision making, and initiative prompted me to begin discussing this work in the context of free will. Many philosophical works on free will invoke just those sorts of behaviours, without realising that they all share a common psychological and physiological substrate. The notion of free will is controversial, but I assume most people accept the reality of self-control, initiative and

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rational choice. The common process that produces those three types of behaviours is almost certainly the psychological reality behind the popular notion of free will. Either it is exactly what free will is, or it is what is mistaken for free will. In any case, this link further extends the importance of understanding and knowing how to use this important human resource.

Getting the most from life This article has provided an overview of my research program, but many other questions remain, such as how to raise children with good self-control, and how to manage the limited resource for best results. Those wishing for a broader and fuller discussion are invited to consult my co-authored book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011). One important conclusion in that book is a newly emerging sense of how successful people manage the limited resource. The popular image of self-control and willpower still conforms to traditional ideas of the person using inner strength to fend off strong temptations and cope with crises. Yet increasingly the evidence is suggesting that the most successful people, and indeed those with the best self-control, spend relatively less time than others struggling with temptations and crises. Yes, willpower can be used for such things – but it can also be used to set up one’s life to run smoothly so as to avoid those demands and problems. Trait self-control has been especially successful at predicting performance at school and work, which depends less on the single heroic feat of will than on having steady, reliable work habits. Put another way, some people use their willpower to study all night before the exam, but others use it more effectively by keeping up with their work so they don’t have to stay up all night at the last minute. If anything, they make sure to get a good night’s sleep so they are well rested for the exam. Willpower may have an unappealing, Victorian reputation. But it is simply a matter of using one’s physical and mental energy to reach one’s goals and get the most out of life. It is one of the most important human traits and a key to longterm success in life. Roy F. Baumeister is a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University


The Psychologist February 2012  

This is a preview of the February issue of The Psychologist, published by the British Psychological Society. The whole issue will be availab...

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