Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The loss of self-control

Civilization employs numerous devices for channeling human behavior, mechanisms for redirecting us away from our natural inclinations and toward activities that serve the needs of the machine.  Much of this redirection involves the intentional erosion of self-control.   Self-control is the clay out of which true resistance is molded.

Research on self-regulation has found that self-control operates very much like a muscle: it appears to be a limited resource that can be depleted and requires rest in order to reestablish its strength.  Self-control reflects the ability to inhibit behavior or override competing urges.  The exercise of inhibition is effortful, and inhibiting one set of urges leaves less energy left over for a subsequent set. 

People fail to exercise self-control following recent situations in which their self-control has been taxed or when there are multiple demands on self-regulation.  For example, a dieter who has to inhibit the desire for the delicious chocolate chip cookies in the lunchroom is more likely to binge on cheesecake at home later on.  Or the menial employee who has to submit quietly to a verbally abusive boss all day long on the job is more likely to lash out uncontrollably at his or her teenage child at the dinner table in the evening.

A wide variety of factors, environmental and psychological, can tap into our inhibitory resource and reduce the ability to maintain self-control, including noise, coping with stress, regulating mood and moderating emotional expression, delaying gratification, dieting, and engaging in activities that require physical or attentional stamina.  One study found that just the anticipation of a future demand on self-control can deplete the inhibitory resource. 

It is a fairly straightforward matter to trace the myriad ways that our self-control resource is overtaxed by life in modern techno-culture, with its continual stress, competing demands on attention, enticements, distractions, and a plethora of situations in which our natural emotional responses must be held in check. 

True resistance, then, requires an almost super-human level of self-control simply to overcome distraction and competing demands long enough to realize the extent to which resistance is warranted in the first place, let alone to meet the self-regulation demands of planning and executing effective courses of action and coping with their consequences.

What we really need, then, is—Wait!  I need to tweet about this…

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