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Doing it for Yourself (or How Not to Doom Your Diet)

Posted May 04 2012 12:00am

Have you ever found that it’s easier to diet when you’re doing it for yourself rather than to please someone else? If you have, research backs that up ; people who make the effort to lose weight for their own reasons are more successful at it than those who are doing it for external reasons.

At least that’s what people in a six-month weight loss program said when they were asked about their reasons for dieting. The participants who reported more internal motivation to lose weight attended the program more regularly, lost more weight during the program, and maintained the weight loss better than those whose motivation was more external.

Mark Muraven was not involved in that study, but he is one of the researchers who helped develop the depletion model of self-control. In fact, as a graduate student working on his master’s thesis, he designed and carried out the original study that demonstrated how self-restraint has a negative impact on later attempts to control behavior, and concluded that it’s an indication that self-control or willpower  is a limited resource that gets depleted with use. Muraven is now an associate professor at the University of Albany and wanted to examine the effects of internal versus external motivation on self-control.  About five years ago he published an interesting paper that describes a study he carried out to explore this question.

He told participants (82 undergraduates) that the purpose of the study was to see the effect that sugar had on strength. It actually had nothing to do with that, but he needed the subjects to be blind to the real purpose of the study. (He straightened them out afterwards in a standard debriefing.) First, they were asked to squeeze a spring-loaded hand grip, which is a common task used to measure self-control. The more self-control they had, the longer they would squeeze the device before giving up. This was their baseline measure of how long they can hold it.

He then presented them with plates of assorted cookies and told them that he’ll be stepping out for a few minutes. Before he left, he explained that they can choose to eat the cookies or not. However, the researchers for the (mock) “sugar strength” test especially need participants who could be in the group of those who did not eat any cookies.  “The choice,” he emphasized, “is entirely yours. But we would really appreciate it if you would not eat the cookies.” When the investigator returned to the room, he administered the grip test again.

Only three of the 82 participants ate any cookies (their results were excluded), so the group was pretty compliant, but they had different motivations for not eating them. As they revealed on a questionnaire they were given afterward, some people endorsed internal reasons not to eat the cookies, like, “it’s fun to challenge myself,” which would be an internal motivation. Others didn’t eat them “because I want the experimenter to like me,” an external motive. The questionnaire was designed to measure autonomous self-control on a continuum from very internally motivated to very externally motivated.

They also measured the difference between the baseline and follow-up grip-strength endurance times for each person and compared the degree of drop-off in endurance with the degree of autonomy the subjects felt. The results? As the previous observations indicated, it confirmed that internal motivation for self-control was less “depleting” (in depletion model terms) than external motivation. The problem is, the resource-depletion theory has no explanation for why that should happen. As Muraven concluded, “this study indicates that the [depletion] model needs a significant revision, as autonomous self-control appears to deplete far less self-control strength than compelled self-control.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has had this experience: You’re rushing to get out of the house on a winter morning to drive the older kids in carpool, and as you struggle to get the youngest into his snowsuit he’s screaming, “No! I want to do it myself!!”  Or you might be old enough to remember the tagline from the Anacin commercial, “Mother, please! I’d rather do it myself!” Young or old, people have a need to feel that they are the source of their own actions. Why is the need to do it by and for yourself so important?

The need for autonomous control, or the self-driven motivation to act, has been explained by two psychologists at the University of Rochester , Richard Ryan and Edward Deci . According to this idea,  called Self-Determination Theory , a feeling of autonomy is, along with competence and relatedness, one of the three main elements of intrinsic motivation. For a good non-technical explanation of these ideas, read Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do . In it, he relates an old Jewish fable told to him by a friend.

It seems that bigots were eager to rid their town of a Jewish man who had opened a tailor shop on Main Street, so they sent a group of rowdies to harass the tailor. Each day, the ruffians would show up to jeer. The situation was grim, but the tailor was ingenious. One day when the hoodlums arrived, he gave each of them a dime for their efforts. Delighted, they shouted their insults and moved on. The next day they returned to shout, expecting their dime. But the tailor said he could afford only a nickel and proceeded to hand a nickel to each of them. Well, they were a bit disappointed, but a nickel is after all a nickel, so they took it, did their jeering, and left. The next day, they returned once again, and the tailor said he had only a penny for them and held out his hand. Indignant, the young toughs sneered and proclaimed that they would certainly not spend their time jeering at him for a measly penny. So they didn’t. And all was well for the tailor.

As long as their motivation was their own sheer pleasure at giving this poor tailor a hard time, they would do it for free. But once they got used to doing it for a reward, their internal motivation was replaced by the external reward. When the incentive ended, the behavior stopped. (Think about the implications for corporate wellness programs that rely on incentives to get employees to lose weight and exercise!) Similarly, the surest way to doom whatever you might accomplish on a diet is to lose the weight for someone else rather than for yourself. At some point, the pay-off ends while the deprivation continues and is no longer worth it.

But what does all this say about whether self-control is the result of willpower, as the depletion-resource-strength model theorists contend? If you recall from my previous post about why people would repeat something that they know will cause them to feel worse afterward, my conclusion was that the reinforcement for that behavior was actually very powerful; it was all about freedom, autonomy, and control, as self-determination theory has been saying all along.

When Muraven says that the results of his study on autonomy and self-control indicate the need to revise the depletion model, I would agree.  It seems that when there is a sense of imbalance between having control over your own choices versus feeling forced or pressured to behave according to expectations – even self-imposed expectations – that balance must be restored. Sometimes, that may even be at the expense of having to deal with unpleasant consequences later .

When the depletion theorists describe certain behaviors, such as emotional eating, as a “breakdown” of restraint, it is not due to a passive depletion of the strength to resist; rather, it’s an active strategy to restore an imbalance in autonomy. In the next post I’ll describe in more detail this idea of balance, imbalance and restoration, and how it can be applied to improve the self-regulation of behavior.

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