Fascinating article in the New York Times suggesting we have only a finite amount of mental energy available to make difficult decisions or exert willpower.
This issue may be particularly relevant to those living in poverty as they have to devote a lot of mental energy making the trade-offs required to get by with less money. As a result they may have less mental energy left to exert willpower than wealthier people, argues Princeton economist Dean Spears:
Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget.
Apparently glucose can help top up your willpower supplies but that’s not exactly helpful for those trying to use their willpower to stay on a diet.
They’re trapped in a nutritional catch-22:
1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.
2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.
It makes me wonder whether that’s why social workers, who have lots of difficult deciesions to make, like biscuits so much! But there is perhaps a useful lesson in the article:
people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.
(Pic: paulinaclemente on flickr)