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See Inside July/August 2009

Try a Little Powerlessness—Pitfalls of Self-Control

We admire self-discipline, but could too much control be a bad thing?
decisions, self-control



© AngiePhotos / ISTOCKPHOTO

SELF CONTROL is one of our most cherished values. We applaud those who have the discipline to regulate their appetites and actions, and we try hard to instill this virtue in our children. Think of the marketing slogans that key off the desire for restraint: “Just say no.” “Just do it.” We celebrate the power of the mind to make hard choices, despite our emotions or other temptations, and keep us on course.

But what if we can’t just do it? What if “it” is too difficult or if our strategy for success is misguided? Is it possible that willpower actually might be an obstacle rather than a means to happiness and harmony? Can we have too much of a good thing?

Two Tufts University psychologists believe there may be some truth to this possibility. Evan P. Apfelbaum and Samuel R. Sommers were intrigued by the notion that too much self-control may indeed have a downside—and that relinquishing some personal power might be paradoxically tonic, both for individuals and for society. They decided to test this idea in the laboratory.

Your Inner Bigot
They explored the virtue of powerlessness in the arena of race relations. They figured that well-intentioned people are careful—sometimes hypercareful—not to say the wrong thing about race in a mixed-race group. Furthermore, they thought that such effortful self-control might actually cause both unease and dishonesty, which could in turn be misconstrued as racial prejudice.

To test this theory, they first deliberately sapped the mental powers of a number of volunteers. This practice is not as diabolical as it sounds. Researchers ran the participants through a series of computer-based mental exercises that are so challenging that the subjects temporarily deplete their cognitive reserves needed for discipline. Once they had the volunteers in this compromised state of mind, they put the group (and others who were not so depleted) into a social situation with the potential for racial tension. Here it is:

Each white subject is left alone in a room. A black man enters and asks if the volunteer will consent to a brief interview on the issue of how universities should guarantee racial diversity. This question is ostensibly unrelated to the self-control experiment, but in fact that is a ruse. The interviewer asks the participant to share any thoughts he or she might have on this “hot topic,” and the conversation is recorded.

It was that simple, although sometimes the in­ter­viewers were white, to serve as controls. Afterward, the volunteers rated the inter­action for comfort, awkwardness and enjoyment. In addition, independent judges—both black and white—analyzed the five-minute interactions, commenting on how cautious the volunteers were, how direct in their answers, and how racially prejudiced.

Failure of Control
The results were provocative. As reported in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who were mentally depleted—that is, those who did not have the energy to exert personal discipline and self-control—found talking about race with a black man much more enjoyable than did those whose self-control was intact. That outcome is presumably because they were not working so hard at monitoring and curbing what they said. It may seem counterintuitive, but being cognitively drained made them less inhibited and more candid, which felt good.

And it wasn’t just the volunteers’ perceptions of the experience: the independent black observers found that the powerless volunteers were much more direct and authentic in conversation. And perhaps most striking, blacks saw the less inhibited whites as less prejudiced against blacks. In other words, relinquishing power over oneself appears to thwart overthinking and “liberate” people for more authentic relationships.

Race relations is just one arena of life where a little powerlessness may go a long way. Addiction recovery is another. One of the guiding principles of 12-step programs is that too much self-reliance can be harmful and that powerlessness is a necessary precursor of the emotional balance needed for sobriety. But self-reliance is so deeply ingrained in us that it pervades our work lives, our relationships and our health choices, so it is a real challenge to accept that it might sometimes be a character flaw. It is good to remember that the volunteers here were not only perceived as fairer; they themselves felt happier. Where else might we be acting too smart for our own good?

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