What do chocolate chip cookies and radishes reveal about self-control? Side by side, they’ve taught us some important lessons about willpower and what we can do to increase self-control during even the most difficult conversations and negotiations.
Willpower researcher Dr. Roy Baumeister invited hungry college students into his lab. The room was suffused with the aroma of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, just out of the lab oven and now sitting enticingly on the table in front of them.
You can just smell those cookies, can’t you? Yum…
Also on the table were two additional food choices: Some pieces of chocolate and a bowl of radishes.
Some of the students were invited to eat the cookies and chocolate, lucky devils. Others were invited only to eat the radishes, poor saps.
The researchers then left the students alone and observed them through a hidden window. A third group, the control group, had no food in front of them and so no food to resist.
The students allowed only to eat the radishes clearly struggled with their option. Many gazed longingly at the cookies before finally nibbling unhappily on a radish. Some picked up a cookie and smelled it longingly. A couple dropped a cookie and then put it back in the bowl so no one would be the wiser.
But they had willpower, those radish students. Regardless of how very tempting the cookies were compared to their radishes, every single one of them resisted successfully.
Good for them. Except…that wasn’t really the point of the experiment. What the researchers really wanted to know came next.
The students were taken to another room and given geometry puzzles. Very special geometry puzzles. Very annoying ones, in fact: They were not solvable. The researchers wanted to see how long the students would work before giving up.
The students who’d been permitted to eat the cookies and candy worked on the puzzles for about 20 minutes, as was the case with a control group.
But the radish students gave up much sooner, in about 8 minutes — a huge difference by the standards of lab experiments like this.
By successfully resisting temptation beforehand, the students had depleted some of the energy needed to persevere in tackling those damn puzzles. There’s a name for this experience: Ego depletion.
Managing ego depletion during conflict and negotiation
Resisting temptation, biting your tongue, turning the other cheek, resisting the cookies on the conference room table, and all the myriad ways you control yourself during and outside of conflict slowly deplete the energy your body and your mind need to continue practicing self-control. The longer this continues in a conflict conversation, the greater your chances of giving up…or blowing up.
Here are five ways to apply Baumeister’s research and increase self-control in your own life and work (and help others do the same):
1. Big negotiation coming up? Try to time it for a time of day before you’re likely to be very ego depleted. I’m best in the morning, so that’s when I prefer to sit down with the car dealer for the price negotiation. I even go so far as to avoid ego-depleting decisions beforehand, laying out my outfit and breakfast choices the night before. Seriously.
2. Difficult conversation or negotiation going long? Try to chunk it down. We don’t always get the choice, but when we do, it can be really helpful to think of “a difficult conversation” as a series of shorter difficult conversations. If I’ve been haggling for that new car for a couple of hours (sometimes being made to wait for long minutes on end as part of the car dealer’s ploy), I just bring it to an end. “Well, we’ve made some progress and I look forward to picking up where we left off tomorrow.”
3. Rough day? Take stock before diving into the difficult conversation or negotiation that comes out of left field. Trigger stacking leaves you depleted and everyone involved is likely to be better off when you say, “You know what? We really do need to talk about this and I want to. But not now. I’m beat and there’s not a chance I’ll bring my best self to this conversation.”
4. Hungry? Make sure being hungry doesn’t turn into being hangry. Hungry + angry = hangry. Self-control takes energy and the kind of self-control needed during conflict takes more energy. Glucose gives your mind and body some of that energy. If you notice yourself lashing out (or someone else notices for you), get yourself a dose of glucose from a healthy source.
5. Tired? Take a nap first. Yes, it looks like a one-hour catnap really can help.
And mediators, take note: The longer you keep your parties in a session, the more you’re contributing to ego depletion. If you tend to use very long mediation sessions, and you see your parties’ behavior going south, resist the temptation to “hold a mirror up to them.” Turn it toward yourself, instead.