Jordan Silberman, MAPP '06 is an MD/PhD student at the University of Rochester where he studies neuroeconomics—the neural basis of decision making. He is currently developing a technique in which brain-computer interface technology is used to promote neural activity that may facilitate self-controlled behavior. Jordan has published articles on psychology, pediatric palliative care, health care communication, bioethics, and proteomics. Full bio.
Jordan's articles for Positive Psychology News Daily are here.
I’m going to give you a choice.You can either head to your local gym right now and bench press 500 pounds, or you can continue to read this article.
Are you feeling less than entirely autonomous? This is exactly the kind of “choice” that Western food industries have been feeding us for years. Here’s why.
Recent research of Baumeister and colleagues suggests that self-regulation (also known as self-control, will-power, etc.) is like a muscle. Like muscular strength, there are significant individual differences in self-regulatory skill. Like muscular strength, we can increase self-regulatory capacity through exercise. Self-regulation, finally, can be exhausted like a muscle; if we self-regulate too much within a short time period, then we must rest “self-regulatory muscles” until they’ve had time to recover.It’s important to note that self-regulation, like all other psychological phenomena, is ultimately a physiological process. We know that positive affect is associated with activity in specific regions of the brain.
Self-regulation, similarly, has a physiological basis. Recent work has demonstrated that increased blood sugar levels increase self-regulation, providing preliminary clues regarding the physiology of self-regulation. While we are decades from a comprehensive understanding of self-regulatory physiology, we have enough information to know that self-regulation is as much a physiological process as is muscle contraction.Just as there are obvious and variable limits on muscular contraction, there must be physiological limits on self-regulation. Westernized food industries have for years justified the unhealthiness of their offerings by invoking consumer choice–if the consumer doesn’t want it, he or she can choose something else.
But the recent research of Baumeister et al. undermines this argument. McDonalds claims that they’re justified in serving Big Macs–which are deadly–because consumers can forego the hamburgers if they choose to. But many consumers simply lack the physiological machinery to do so. The food industry’s argument might be convincing if all consumers had the ability to choose healthy options. But choosing to find healthy foods is, for many people, like choosing to bench press the 500-pound barbell.
Baumeister, R.F., Heatherton, T.F., & Tice, D.M. (1994). Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
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. & Tierny, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books. (Added later)