Busted Halo

In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


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September 2nd, 2010

Dogging Self-Control


halt-flashIn a recent issue of Psychological Science, researchers find that man’s best friend reacts just like we do when posed with a challenge of self-control: If a dog is tired, or has been asked to exert self-control for a long time in a previous test, it is less likely to succeed in the next test of self-control.

These findings provide the first evidence that self-control relies on the same limited energy resource among humans and non-humans.

We’ve seen similar findings in humans for years: Self-control is like a muscle.

What happens when you go to the gym and do a really hard workout-and then someone asks you to lift a very heavy box? You might not be able to heft it up as high as you could have before your workout. Your muscles are tired and they need a break.

Your ability to make good decisions works the same way. Next time you’re feeling frazzled, or about to do something that goes against your goals, purpose and decisions that you’ve outlined above, HALT.

Are you

H Hungry

A Angry

L Lonely

T Tired

If so, fix those problems before you can ask yourself to exhibit self-control of any sort.

As BustedHalo columnist Phil Fox Rose writes

Are you anxious or irritated? Are you beginning to attack someone or lose control? Are you feeling hopeless, or like giving up and returning to an addiction?

  1. HALT! Pause – especially if there is an escalating situation. Take a deep breath or count to ten.
  2. HUNGRY: Did you eat at the last regular mealtime? Or did you skip it?
  3. ANGRY: Is your judgment clouded by anger right now?
  4. LONELY: Are you feeling disconnected from other people, whether alone or in a group, but without making an effort to connect?
  5. TIRED: Did you get enough sleep last night? Many people are so unaccustomed to what enough sleep feels like that this may be new territory. (As I said in my earlier column about sleep, this is one of the biggest problem areas in our society.)
  6. If you identified one of these problem areas, if possible address it. Eat, nap, calm down, or focus on socializing or helping someone else.
  7. If you identified a problem area, but can’t address it right now, focus on awareness. Acknowledge that you are feeling this way and that you let yourself get into an untenable state. Often just this awareness is enough to diffuse the situation entirely.
  8. Make a habit of spot-checking your self-care. Are you getting enough sleep, eating well and regularly, and socializing and helping others?

But please note: These things will be significantly easier to teach yourself than your puppy.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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