According to a study people's own self-control can be worn out simply when they think about others exerting self-control.
Led by Yale University psychologists Joshua M. Ackerman and John A. Bargh, who worked in collaboration with Noah J. Goldstein and Jenessa R. Shapiro from the University of California, Los Angeles, the study explored what affect thinking about other people's self-control has on a person's own thoughts and behavior.
The researchers presented the participants with a story about a hungry waiter who was surrounded by delicious food, but was not allowed to sample any, for fear of being fired.
Half of the participants simply read the story, and the other half were told to imagine themselves in the waiter's shoes.
The research team later showed images of mid- to high-priced items (e.g., cars and TVs) to all the participants, and asked them to indicate how much they would pay for them.
In a follow-up experiment, some of the participants read the same story and others read a similar story in which the waiter was not hungry, and did not have to use self-control.
Just as in the first experiment, some of the participants read the story while others imagined themselves as the waiter. All volunteers later participated in a word game and a memory task.
The researchers found that the participants, who imagined themselves in the waiter's position, were more willing to spend greater amounts of money on the luxury items, they had exhausted their capacity for self-control and restraint, leading them to spend more money.
In the follow-up experiment, the volunteers who read and imagined the story of the waiter who was not hungry performed much better on the word game and memory task.
The researchers observed that the participants that imagined themselves as the waiter from the original story, who exercised self-control and did not eat any food, performed the worst on the word game and memory tasks.
Based on their findings, the researchers came to the conclusion that a person's own self-control can be worn out simply by mentally simulating another person acting with self-control.
The authors note that imagining someone else's self-control "could result in small breakdowns of self-control, such as employees speaking out improperly during a meeting, to catastrophic ones, such as police officers responding to an emotionally charged encounter with deadly force."
The study has been published in the journal Psychological Science.