I have been reading an excellent book, “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence had Declined” by Steven Pinker of Harvard. Pinker presents a huge amount of evidence that violence of all types has declined over past centuries and recent decades. The per capita rates of murder, rape, wife-beating, child spanking, animal abuse, etc., have dropped. Per capita deaths in wars have dropped, other than during world wars — the last of which was 70 years ago. Pinker gives several reasons for the positive changes: Increases in rule by government, democracy, education, international trade, international organizations, and information flow. Also, the development of the rule of law and human (and animal) rights have played important roles. Other variables include increases in abstract reasoning, empathy, and self-control. I want to focus here on self-control. Roy Baumeister at Florida State University has shown that self-control operates like a muscle in that (1) it can get worn out in the short run by high use and (2) individuals can increase their reserve of self-control by exercising self-control repeatedly. For instance, brushing one’s teeth with the non-dominant hand over a period of weeks helps a person deal better with a self-control challenge, according to research. Coincidentally, I have been brushing my teeth this past week with my nondominant hand. My goal was to strengthen the motor areas of the right side of my brain. Now I know that I am also stengthening areas of the brain (the frontal lobes) involved in self-control. Other methods used in studies to exercise self-control have included using no swear words and never starting a sentence with “I.” After weeks of these exercises, studies show that individuals smoked less, drank less alcohol, spent less money, studied more, and washed the dishes more often!
What are you doing to increase your researve of self-control? What experiences in the past have helped you develop the self-control you now have?
John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology