Developing Self-Control

As the universities settle into their routines of lecture, tutorials and maybe labs for some students, the frequency of wild parties has decreased and normality is returning to university towns. The muttering from the older population about the lack of self-control of the young has also faded to its normal background level.

Self-control has been an active area of psychological and cognition studies for some time. The frontal lobes of your brain are where the struggle goes on. The more you have to struggle, the greater the degree of tiredness – just like your leg muscles as you climb up stairs – or so the received wisdom goes.

The technospeak is that you experience self-regulation depletion after experiencing a bout of self-regulation demanding activity. Universities are, of course, great places to study this. They have adequate supplies of eager lab rats to try things on among the continuously renewed supply of undergrads shipped in each year.

Dahm et al have recognized a problem with this source of lab rats, though, and have just published a study which illustrates it (1). They point out that our pre-frontal lobes are not fully developed until we are 25 or so, and thus the 20-year olds rushing into the labs to be experimental subjects are not well-armed for the self-control battle. It’s not just that they may be lacking in practice but their ‘self-control muscle’ is still in the building stage.

The experimental program for their paper used a cohort of  40-60 year olds as well as undergrads and exercised their self-control muscles using a Stroop test. That’s the one where subjects have to read the words for a series of colors that are printed in inks of a different color to the one that the word describes. They were then subjected to an autobiographical memory test in which accuracy was measured. Of course control groups made sure that they wouldn’t draw false conclusions.

The undergrads showed much greater self-regulatory depletion than the ‘oldies’ who didn’t show very much, confirming our prejudice that we oldies have more self-control than those noisy youngsters. The authors warn their colleagues about the possible bias lurking in a large number of cognitive studies because their subject’s brains were not fully matured.

So next time you lie awake at 2 A.M. listening to the student bacchanalia next door, just remember that they are still in the process of strengthening their resistance to self-regulatory depletion by beefing up their frontal lobes. Dousing them with alcohol makes the exercise more challenging, just like increasing the weights on the exercise machine in the gym.


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