What do the words “still” and “calm” have to do with temptation resitance?

Resisting temptation may be more unconscious a phenomenon than previously understood, claims new study

Woman tempted to buy a dressWhen faced with a temptation, we often chide ourselves with “Control yourself.” A new study published in the journal Cognition indicates more subtle psychological influences could be in play when we resist temptation. It’s not as conscious an act as was previously considered.

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign demonstrated through research that inaction-related words in our environment can affect our self-control without us realising it.

Justin Hepler, M.A., University of Illinois and Dolores Albarracín, PhD at Penn conducted a study in which volunteers were given instructions to press a computer key when they saw the letter “X” on the computer screen, or NOT press a key when they saw the letter “Y.”

To bring the subtle forces into play, random words were flashed on the screen. Some words were action words like “move”, “hit”, “run”, “go”. Some of them were inaction words like “still”, “sit”, “rest”, “calm”. Some of them were meaningless words like “rnu” or “tsi”. The meaning of the words was totally unrelated to the action of pressing the key. The participants’ brain activity was measured through EEGs.

The scientists found that inaction words [though read without any conscious relevance to the activity at hand] triggered increased activity in the brain’s self-control mechanisms. Action words decreased the activity in these brain processes. Meaningless words had no effect.

“Many important behaviours such as weight loss, giving up smoking, and saving money involve a lot of self-control,” the team noted. “While many psychological theories state that actions can be initiated automatically with little or no conscious effort, these same theories view inhibition as an effortful, consciously controlled process. Although reaching for that cookie doesn’t require much thought, putting it back on the plate seems to require a deliberate, conscious intervention. Our research challenges the long-held assumption that inhibition processes require conscious control to operate.”

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