Are you often tempted to reach for a cookie instead of a carrot, skip your workout in favor of watching TV or ignore piles of bills even though you know they need to be paid? Next time your willpower wavers, try tensing up your muscles—and your resolve may instantly firm up, a recent study suggests.Participants were presented with various self-control dilemmas that involved accepting immediate discomfort, deprivation or distress to promote some worthy long-term goal. For example, researchers monitored subjects as they drank a purportedly healthful, but terrible tasting, tonic… selected items in a cafeteria that offered both tempting indulgences (fried foods, pastries) and healthful fare (fresh fruit, yogurt)… kept their hands submerged in ice (a test of resistance to pain)… or decided whether to view disturbing information about earthquake victims and then donate money.
Findings: Participants who were told to tighten their muscles (hands, biceps, calves) as they faced their challenges demonstrated more self-control than participants who did not tighten their muscles. Specifically, the clenchers drank more of the yucky health tonic… resisted nonnutritious cafeteria foods more successfully… tolerated the icy pain longer… and paid more attention to the disturbing, but important, earthquake information.
Interpretation: Without conscious intent, people sometimes clench their muscles when exerting their willpower. Researchers suggest that, because the mind and body are so closely tied together, consciously firming up the muscles can help activate willpower and increase self-control.
It doesn’t seem to matter which muscles you clench. What’s important is to do it at the exact moment when you are facing the challenge—for instance, when those cookies are right in front of you. The study researchers found that clenching beforehand did not help and, in fact, tended to deplete rather than strengthen resolve.