Photo by Antoine Taveneaux; accessed through Wikimedia Commons

Still thinking about the topic of impulse control and why it’s so important when it comes to maintaining our financial health?

This post marks the third in a four-part series on the topic.  So far, we’ve looked at the “unthinking side” of impulse control, which includes the gut reactions and snap decisions that happen underneath the radar of our consciousness.  We’ve also looked at the “thinking side,” which is the systematic, logical, planful system that makes sure the impulsive self does not always get its way.

Now we take a look at the reasons why our automatic system can overwhelm our controlled system.  In other words, why do our impulses take over our behavior, even when we have the best intentions to stick to a financial goal?

It turns out that there are several conditions that can hinder our self-control.  Here are five:

  1. Ego depletion.  This is also known as regulatory depletion.  Think about all of the situations you encounter in a day which require you to regulate your behavior, hold back distressing emotions, suppress certain things you want to say or do, or choose from an overabundance of options.  Scientists have discovered that all of these tasks drain our supply of self-control and make it more difficult for us to persist in the face of obstacles.  Regulatory depletion means that if we’ve used up much of our supply of self-control on one task, we have limited self-control available to use on the next task, even if it is a completely different task.
  2. Cognitive overload.  Basically, the more we have on our minds, the easier it is to give in to temptation.  Consider the chocolate cake study conducted by Baba Shiv at Stanford University.  The researchers assembled two groups of undergraduates.  Members of one group were asked to remember a two-digit number, while members of the other group were asked to remember a seven-digit number.  Then, each student was instructed to walk down the hall.  At the end of the hall, the experimenter presented each student with two snack options: either a slice of chocolate cake, or a bowl of fruit salad.  Results showed that the participants who were asked to remember a seven-digit number were about twice as likely to choose the slice of cake compared to the students who were asked to remember a two-digit number.  It seemed that the extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain, thereby interfering with the participants’ impulse control mechanisms.
  3. Emotional overload.  The more stressed we become, the more difficult it is to maintain self-control.  Many people will readily admit that when they feel overwhelmed, they try to escape the emotional distress by looking to immediate sources of pleasure or good feelings, such as alcohol, high-calorie foods, or expensive purchases.  Impulse control fails in these situations, because stressed individuals give priority to emotion regulation.  For example, consider the person who, at the beginning of the day, plans a healthy dinner for the evening.  Then, after a stressful day at work, she comes home and indulges in junk food instead of the meal that was originally planned.  A similar thing happens in the money domain when emotionally distraught individuals make store purchases that exceed their budget, buy things impulsively off the Internet, or make questionable financial moves.
  4. Lack of awareness.  If you aren’t aware that a given situation is one that could cause you to lose sight of your financial goals, your self-control can be obstructed.  That is why individuals who are embarking on an important financial change are asked to engage in relapse prevention, which is the task of thinking ahead during your good times to anticipate future obstacles.  It often helps to imagine what “high risk situations” or challenging life circumstances could disrupt your progress toward your goal, and then to create a plan for dealing with each potential obstacle.
  5. Overpowering urges.  Sometimes, an urge is so powerful that it saps every bit of energy required to maintain self-control.  For those who have good inhibitory control and who have cultivated discipline in their lives (see last week’s post!), this happens less frequently.  But no one is completely immune to overpowering urges.

Next week, we’ll take a look at strategies for strengthening self-control.

Until then, ponder this: Which one of the five conditions listed above do you think is most problematic, either for yourself or for other people?