“Do not bite at the bait of pleasure until you know there is no hook beneath it.” – Thomas Jefferson
Almost everyone experiences lapses in self-control. These lapses can include things like eating junk food when on a diet, overreacting to a minor upset, smoking marijuana more often than you would like, or drinking more than you intended. These all represent failures in self-control, which fall under the psychological umbrella of “executive control.”
Executive control consists of a variety of cognitive functions: attention, memory, planning, initiating actions, and inhibiting actions. We all know people in our lives who seem curiously adept at focusing their attention, using their memory, planning skillfully, and carefully controlling their behaviors. Conversely, most of us know people who seem to be an absolute wreck when it comes to self-management. What makes the difference between these two types of people and how can you become more like the person who has mastery of their executive functions?
Working memory is strongly related to executive control. This type of memory is completely different from the type of memory that decides whether or not you will remember all of the events from last night’s big party. Instead, working memory is the ability to temporarily hold key information in your mind and use that information to make plans and decisions. Because it is such an important building block of executive control, it plays a crucial role in one’s ability to inhibit behaviors.
Strengthening Working Memory Helps Control Impulses
According to a recent study by Dr. Katrijn Houben and her fellow researchers at Maastricht University, strengthening people’s working memory helps them control their impulses. They came to this conclusion by examining impulse control in “heavy drinkers” (i.e., people who drank 30 drinks or more per week). Participants engaged in online working memory activities over the course of 25 sessions, spread out over a month’s time (a placebo group did not participate in the memory activities).
The treatment group (i.e., the heavy drinkers participating in the online memory activities) went through a thorough working memory training program that required them to engage in a variety of verbal and spatial tasks. One task involved them seeing a series of letters – one by one – on a computer screen. They were asked to remember the letters as they appeared on the screen and then recall them in the opposite order.
This is an example of a common working memory task that requires your memory to “work” with information in the moment by manipulating information in your mind and recalling it backwards. There is a very similar task on the Working Memory Index (WMI) of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-IV), which measures adult general intelligence or IQ.
As you might guess, the people who engaged in these working memory activities for one month got significantly better at the type of working memory tasks they had been trained on. Surprisingly though, they also got better at executive control tasks that they had not even practiced.
What’s more? These people who reported that they regularly drank 30 drinks or more each week reported that they were able to reduce their alcohol intake by 10 drinks per week. The people with the strongest impulses to drink were the ones who demonstrated the biggest reductions in alcohol intake. People in the placebo group showed no change in drinking behavior.
More good news is that when these people were reassessed one month later, they continued to show the same benefits to their working memory and reduction in alcohol intake. This research is very exciting and promising, particularly in the area of addiction research, since it implies that people with severe deficits in executive control can significantly strengthen their working memory and ability to inhibit problematic behaviors.
If you experience significant struggles with self-control, consider engaging in a little “experiment” of your own. Try playing a memory game or engaging in a task designed to strengthen working memory every day for one month. Devote a little bit time each night before bed or on your lunch break to strengthen your executive control.
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Online Activities/Info to Strengthen Working Memory:
Beilock, S. (2011, June 27). Training the brain to avoid temptation [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/choke/201107/training-the-brain-avoid-temptation
Houben, K., Wiers, R. W., & Jansen, A. (2011). Getting a Grip on Drinking Behavior : Training Working Memory to Reduce Alcohol Abuse. Psychological Science
Featured image: Brain Puzzle by Toca Boca / CC BY 2.0