Home Debunking The Myths The Will Power Series: Why Is It So Hard To Develop Self-Control?

The Will Power Series: Why Is It So Hard To Develop Self-Control?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

In Tuesday’s post, I talked a lot about what the phrase “will power” means to me, and my experiences with not having any. In that post, I said the following:

Gratification, in the form of food, often brings about its own set of problems, especially if you’re looking for some sense of self-satisfaction that is more than the ephemeral pleasure that comes from a food simply being tasty. If one isn’t making conscious, mindful choices in their food intake, it can trigger a pattern of priming, incentive salience, and hyperphagia because of habituation… all of which can then be cemented in the brain by pleasant chemical reactions in the brain.

I don’t say all of that to be a fear-monger, but I do say all of that to say three things: 1) yes, that little “no” is damned powerful; 2) yes, the chemical reaction can actually undo any learning of self control you once had; and 3) having to fight all of this is why so many people experience difficulty with actually developing will power.

But what do all those terms mean?

For me, it was important to understand the pattern of creating a negative habit and the value of being able to break down a task. If I know that there are approximately eight opportunities between “desiring junk food” and “eating junk food” for me to avoid perpetuating a bad habit, then I become that much stronger. I have more of an opportunity to fight.

I know this feels like it’s overcomplicated in so many ways – how hard is it to just not eat the damn cookie? – but the reality is that had I never developed the binging habit in the first place, I wouldn’t need all of this armor to fight.Because I’ve said before

I did a lot – a lot – of reading once upon a time into the psychology behind habit development and understanding the why behind doing what I did. For me, it was a combination of natural behaviors coupled with chemical reactions that solidified my patterns, and it all started with being primed to overindulge.

Priming (the act of being primed) is the unconscious development of a connection between two things. When it comes to things like visual cues – product placement in television shows/music videos/movies, billboards, magazine ads – which can trigger a connection between the item and an emotion or characteristic, priming allows a person to believe (without legitimately and consciously remembering where it came from, mind you) that X item can create X trait in them, or even that Y item can make them feel Y kind of way. It happens long before you actually begin to analyze the meaning of the connection. It affects your perception and, in a lot of ways, influences everyday prejudices. Think of the McDonalds commercial, targeted towards kids, where the cartoon is of a young kid – just like them – who flies off into outer space in a helmet (“cool thing”), drives his car (“cool grown up thing I’m not allowed to do”), drives off into the sky (“OMGOMGOMG”), pulls over into a McDonalds (“YESSSSS!”), is handed a happy meal with all of his food floating out of the box (“Wowwwwwww!”) and then scarfs down his milk with a smile while he starts floating, too. Prime kids to think McDonalds is this cool, awesome, awe inspiring place that gives you ‘yummy’ ‘happy’ food. (It’s no coincidence that it’s called a “happy meal.”) The brain does this because it’s trying to, naturally, simplify the process. The next time you encounter the same commercial, it’ll be easier to process the “message:” McDonalds is this cool place where all your fantasies can come true.

So, say the priming works. You’ve been convinced that trying X item out is worth a shot. Then, priming goes hand in hand with conditioning, which feels reminiscent of Pavlov’s dog. If you try out X item and it brings you pleasant feelings, you’ve reaffirmed your preconceived notion, and now you’re conditioning yourself to expect that feeling every time you try X item. Think of Pavlov and his dogs:

During his research on the physiology of digestion in dogs, Pavlov noticed that, rather than simply salivating in the presence of food, the dogs began to salivate in the presence of the lab technician who normally fed them. From this observation he predicted that, if a particular stimulus in the dog’s surroundings was present when the dog was given food, then this stimulus would become associated with food and cause salivation on its own. In his initial experiment, Pavlov used a bell to call the dogs to their food and, after a few repetitions, the dogs started to salivate in response to the bell. […] Pavlov found that the shorter the interval between the bell’s ring and the appearance of the food, the more quickly the dog learned the conditioned response and the stronger it was. [source]

Now, look at it this way – if priming creates unconscious connections between items and the way they can make us feel, then the affirmation of actually receiving that feeling after having acquired that item causes us to become conditioned to expect it every time that item is within our reach. We have been rewarded with that feeling because we’ve acquired that item.

When we’re talking about natural foods like fruits and vegetables, meats and the like, however, we’re talking about something that already has its own built in mechanisms – sugar/sweetness, fat and salt/bitterness, also referred to as “hedonics” – to create pleasure in the brain. Each occurs naturally in raw states, and the hedonic value – the amount of pleasure one can derive from the food – can be ratcheted up a bit by cooking. (For fat outside of meat, you can look to fruits like avocado or nuts like cashews or seeds like flax.) Processed food – you know, the stuff created by companies that can do this:

If a company spends $30 million on studies for creating the “perfect spaghetti sauce,” and spends years on taste testing for the perfect balance… then guess what – they’re investing all of that money and doing all of that taste testing to find out which sauce will please the majority of the public. (Note: This will almost always be a sauce full of sugar and salt. The sugar makes it pleasing on the tongue and in the brain. The salt makes you want to use more of it.) It makes sense, then, that the majority of the public would be able to say no to the sauce? I’m confused.

….processed food has those hedonics ‘all the way turnt up.’

The body is only used to a minimal amount of sugar, fat and/or salt, and doesn’t really expect much more than that. The minimal amount of hedonics in food triggers what’s called a “dopaminergic response,” which basically means it compels dopamine – chief of the reward centers of the brain – to react to what you’ve done.

Dopamine plays a major role in the brain system that is responsible for reward-driven learning. Every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain, and a variety of highly addictive drugs, including stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, act directly on the dopamine system. [source]

Remember all those studies about how “processed food triggers same reactions in the brain as cocaine?” This is what that means.

The body, as a means of survival, is supposed to want the good stuff. Food wasn’t always as plentiful in the States as it is now, and our bodies haven’t adapted to that. Naturally, our bodies not only want the good stuff, but it wants to horde it. As much of it as it can. Fortunately, for us, the natural stuff has natural fats, quality proteins and fiber, which physically prevent us from being able to overindulge. Processed foods, though? Not so much.

Whew, this is sounding like The Problem With Processed Foods, round two.

Dopamine goes hand in hand with the wanting and desire for an item, also referred to as the “incentive salience,” which has little to do with actually liking something, just an intense compulsion to go get what you’ve been primed to want. Again, a natural response… but when it comes to self-control in regards to food, it’s being used against us.

The abundance of sugars, fats and salts in most modern hyperprocessed food has the body receiving an ‘overdose’, if you will, of these “rewards.” From here, it’s all downhill. A steady overflow of dopamine in the brain actually results in the body becoming addicted to the response that comes with the excess dopamine, even though the body becomes desensitized to the level of dopamine associated with that steady overflow. To put it simply, the body starts requiring more of the stimuli in order to recreate the same levels of dopamine. This… is habituation: developing a tolerance to something, due to repeated excessive use, thereby requiring an increased “dosage.”

This triggers the hyperphagia… which is an increased appetite, except, we’re not really talking about “appetite” at all. Really, it’s a very polite term for “binging.” Unfortunately, this easily correlates to losing one’s self-control or, if we are talking about a child, growing up and never learning what self-control truly looks and feels like. (That, unfortunately, would be me.)

Again, all of these are natural reactions meant to help you survive that wind up resulting in this.

So, how do you fight it? Stay tuned!

You may also like


Karen September 1, 2012 - 9:35 AM

Thank you for writing this. Your previous entry on will power got my wheels turning, and this one really opened my eyes. “Fortunately, for us, the natural stuff has natural fats, quality proteins and fiber, which physically prevent us from being able to overindulge. Processed foods, though? Not so much.” This gave me a new outlook on what I’m eating…and overindulging in. Very interesting, again, thank you!

Kimberly September 3, 2012 - 6:12 PM

Self control is so much easier when I’ve planned for it! Might sound strange but the truth is, when I know what I’m going to eat and when, self control is not a problem. The problem comes when I find myself starving and not in a place to deal with it – like at work or shopping or something. Self control goes right out the window!
By the way, I absolutely love your blog and have found much inspiration and information from it. I look forward to see how I do after 12 months.

marie September 11, 2012 - 1:31 PM

I’m actually pretty consistent on snacking rubbish o_O
It’s damn hard to break a bad habit and at the same time it’s rewarding to adopt a new healthy one. I’ve given up processed food for good now as per breakfast lunch and dinner… But the snacking thing??? Can’t get my *** off the vending machine at work, precisely between 3.30 and 5pm… For that purpose my self control abilities are close to zero *sigh

@Kimberly good point, planning is key, I still have to figure out how I can add more planning into my life.

By the way, I don’t have kids or no one to take care of excepted myself but I’m really wondering how working mom with kids deal with all this organization… Really
( sorry erika I digressed a lot…)

Dedra April 4, 2013 - 12:46 AM

I feel like I have no control. I think about what else I will eat while I’m eating. It’s easy to say ‘eat carrots and not chips’ but it’s not the same of course. I’m trying to make healthier snack choices that fill me up and satisfy my food craving better. An apple doesn’t cut it. It just doesn’t. So I eat a fruit *bowl* I have to feel full. The mental side of eating works against me all the time.

Suzzie April 11, 2013 - 3:55 AM

We all have self-control, the only thing is that others are stronger. With determination, discipline and motivation, you’ll surely get the control that you desire Debbie. I’ve been through it, so I’m sure about it. 🙂

nathalie June 15, 2013 - 1:21 PM

Self control was also my problem. but since I started using Liproxenol my cravings are not the same. The appetite suppression factor it contains really helped a lot with my weight reduction. I’m so happy with what I am experiencing.

nathalie June 15, 2013 - 1:26 PM

Self control was also my problem. but since I started using Liproxenol my cravings are not the same. The appetite suppression factor it contains really helped a lot with my weight reduction. I’m so happy with what I am experiencing.

Comments are closed.