Why Change Is So Hard: Self-Control Is Exhaustible

You hear something a lot about change: People won’t change because they’re too lazy. Well, I’m here to stick up for the lazy people. In fact, I want to argue that what looks like laziness is actually exhaustion. The proof comes from a psychology study that is absolutely fascinating.

So picture this: Students come into a lab. It smells amazing—someone has just baked chocolate-chip cookies. On a table in front of them, there are two bowls. One has the fresh-baked cookies. The other has a bunch of radishes. Some of the students are asked to eat some cookies but no radishes. Others are told to eat radishes but no cookies, and while they sit there, nibbling on rabbit food, the researchers leave the room – which is intended to tempt them and is frankly kind of sadistic. But in the study none of the radish-eaters slipped – they showed admirable self-control. And meanwhile, it probably goes without saying that the people gorging on cookies didn’t experience much temptation.

Then, the two groups are asked to do a second, seemingly unrelated task—basically a kind of logic puzzle where they have to trace out a complicated geometric pattern without raising their pencil. Unbeknownst to them, the puzzle can’t be solved. The scientists are curious how long they’ll persist at a difficult task. So the cookie-eaters try again and again, for an average of 19 minutes, before they give up. But the radish-eaters—they only last an average of 8 minutes. What gives?

The answer may surprise you: They ran out of self-control. Psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource. And I don’t mean self-control only in the sense of turning down cookies or alcohol, I mean a broader sense of self-supervision—any time you’re paying close attention to your actions, like when you’re having a tough conversation or trying to stay focused on a paper you’re writing. This helps to explain why, after a long hard day at the office, we’re more likely to snap at our spouses or have one drink too many—we’ve depleted our self-control.

And here’s why this matters for change: In almost all change situations, you’re substituting new, unfamiliar behaviors for old, comfortable ones, and that burns self-control. Let’s say I present a new morning routine to you that specifies how you’ll shower and brush your teeth. You’ll understand it and you might even agree with my process. But to pull it off, you’ll have to supervise yourself very carefully. Every fiber of your being will want to go back to the old way of doing things. Inevitably, you’ll slip. And if I were uncharitable, I’d see you going back to the old way and I’d say, You’re so lazy. Why can’t you just change?

This brings us back to the point I promised I’d make: That what looks like laziness is often exhaustion. Change wears people out—even well-intentioned people will simply run out of fuel.

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6 Comments

  • Katherine B

    How do they know that the cookie eaters weren't simply on a sugar high, giving them more energy and stamina to tackle the puzzle? They should have used two foods with comparable caloric intake/energy boost.

  • Lucie Miloua

    Dans un troisième groupe, les participants ne devaient rien manger (il n'y avait pas de nourriture devant eux). Ces sujets abandonnaient également moins vite que ceux de la conditions "radis".

    In a third group, participants had no food to eat (and no temptation). These participants too gave up less rapidly than the "radish condition"'s ones.

  • Mari Collins

    If someone gave me free cookies I'd be A LOT more willing to keep trying to complete their stupid task than if they gave me a bunch of radishes.

  • Jim Jackson

    I think you are way off base. Lazy is a choice as is self control. If the pay value is there to change then the change will take place. You are just giving people a way out with your study and logic. I bet for a million dollars you can change how you bath in the morning.

  • Lena F

     You seem to be overlooking the whole point of the presentation. People don't change unless they WANT to change and that they have been enabled to do so. The study has been conducted and re-conducted and verified, as he mentioned; they are done empirically and scientifically. He's not saying you can't change the way you bathe in the morning; he's saying that it's difficult for someone to go on a new diet or start exercising if they have never done so before.

  • anonymous

    the study conducted scientifically and empirically is a only a observation of how people react and respond to a test made with a very intended purpose. meaning that this whole article is a mere intrepretation of our human behaviours. meaning that this article reflects just a theory of what might be happening. meaning that there is no concrete evidence so if you have a rational mind and you think logically then shouldn't put your faith in this.