I just read a kind of strange article here, and I honestly don’t know quite what to make of it. The piece is a brief interview with Aparna Labroo, an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Labroo publishes in the field of consumer psychology, and her PhD is in marketing. This makes me want to be careful concluding much from the results, because I frankly have no idea what kind of work goes into marketing doctorates and don’t know whether we should take research in the field of marketing just as seriously as research in the field of psychology when we’re talking about general human behavior. Tentatively, though, the conclusion seems very interesting.
What Labroo’s studies suggest is that people can increase their self-control simply by grabbing something. The idea seems to be that the physiological response to contracting muscles has some effect on willpower for immediate situations.
For instance, in one study, Labroo had subjects stick one hand in a bucket of ice water and see how long they could keep it there, a difficult but not harmful task. Some of the subjects held a pen loosely in the other hand, some tightly, and others were given no instructions about the pen. The ones who held the pen tightly, Labroo reports, had a significantly higher ability to keep their hand in the cold water.
One limitation I would point out here is that although the popular idea of willpower seems to be that of a struggle between something we want to do and something we “should” do, in fact people who are successful with willpower over the long term seem to be doing much less of that and much more of redirecting their thoughts. In other words, the ability to stand doing something unpleasant is useful for willpower, but not nearly as useful as the ability to refocus attention: see my article “Resistance Really Is Useless: Why Willpower Isn’t About Fighting Ourselves” for more on this.
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