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Everything under Control

Why do we find it so difficult to stick to a diet or take regular exercise? The US psychologist Kathleen Vohs knows the causes and how we can achieve our goals despite them.

When she was sixteen, says Kathleen Vohs, she made three resolutions: to get a doctorate, to run a marathon and to own a patent.

The US psychologist, who was granted the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Anneliese Maier Research Award in September 2014, has already ticked two of the boxes on her list. In 2000, she completed a Ph.D. at the venerable Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, USA, and she has not just run one marathon over the years, but 16 altogether. Anyone meeting this powerhouse of a woman will be in no doubt whatsoever that she will also achieve her third goal, the patent.

Kathleen Vohs speaks quickly, sometimes almost breathlessly. Every sentence is focussed and to the point. You positively see the cogs turning in her brain – and that she sometimes has to put the brakes on to allow the person she is addressing to keep up.

How people manage to put the brakes on is something Kathleen Vohs probably knows more about than anyone else: the professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis is a world authority on self-regulation. Why do people spend more than they have? Why do they have such difficulty in sticking to a diet or taking regular exercise? These are just a couple of the questions that intrigue the award winner and that she is investigating together with the Heidelberg social psychologist Klaus Fiedler and his team.

“Self-control is not something we are born with – it has to be learned.”

Probably the most important finding Kathleen Vohs has made in the last few years can be summarised as follows: self-control is a limited resource which consequently needs to be used intelligently and, to some extent, even economically. So there is absolutely no point in trying to forgo that evening chocolate bar and those online impulse purchases at the same time? “Such an ambitious plan is almost certainly doomed to failure,” says Kathleen Vohs, laughing.

But she does have some good news: a lack of self-control is not a deficiency you are born with. The ability to control your own behaviour and adapt it to new situations is something you can learn. “People who regularly practise self-control in small doses soon realise that it gets easier as you go along,” she says. According to her theory, completing a diet successfully can potentially even help people subsequently learn to handle money more prudently.

Most important thing – the snacks

Klaus Fiedler, who has known Kathleen Vohs for the last ten years and was the one to nominate her for the Anneliese Maier Research Award, praises the 43-year-old’s tireless drive. “I am always impressed by the determination with which she tackles things,” he says. He also appreciates how creative she is when it comes to thinking up new experiments to test her sometimes unusual hypotheses.

For one of her studies, for example, she invited dieters to attend her laboratory individually. Here she set up a sitting room situation with a comfy chair, a table, a sideboard and a television – even plants and candles. “But the most important thing were the snacks,” says Kathleen Vohs. “They had to be very tempting and seriously unhealthy.” The decisive point about the experiment was that the snacks – sugar-coated chocolate dragees, nachos and salted peanuts – were set out in different places in the room. For the one group, they were easy to reach, so the temptation was great. For the other group, the nibbles were within their line of vision but still some distance away. It thus took a lot less self-control to ignore them.

The test subjects were asked to sit down in the armchair and watch a film. “It was a protracted video about a sheep, with no plot at all,” says Kathleen Vohs. The object of the procedure was to induce boredom in the test subjects so that, depending on the location of the snacks, a greater or lesser degree of self-control was required not to distract themselves by nibbling.

It subsequently got even more unfair: All the test subjects were then given a number of tasks to carry out. For example, they were supposed to draw a figure without taking the pen off the paper. What nobody was told was that all the tasks were impossible. “We were able to observe that all the participants who had previously sat near the snacks gave up much more quickly than those who had only been exposed to slight temptation,” Kathleen Vohs reports. “This result supported our theory that self-control is a limited resource.”

The researcher, who has already published several books, has addressed the subject of money more than almost any other psychologist. She became interested in the topic more than thirteen years ago. “After having to manage on the modest earnings of a postdoc, I got my first assistant professorship at the University of British Columbia in 2003,” Kathleen Vohs remembers. This involved a considerable jump in salary. “And, suddenly, my behaviour changed,” she says. Instead of asking her friends to drive her to the airport, for instance, the young professor went by taxi. She hardly ever wandered around the shops with girlfriends any more, but acquired a personal shopper – a paid consultant who then took over responsibility for her wardrobe. “In a nutshell: I started to live much more independently of the people who really mean something to me,” she explains.

A widely-acclaimed paper published in “Science” in 2006 proved that she had hit on a general response pattern with her observation. She was able to demonstrate, for example, how easy it is for money to make you lonely. “Even just thinking about money causes most people to instinctively put a greater distance between themselves and others,” says the researcher. “They prefer to do things alone instead of asking others for help, and are less helpful themselves.”

Money also plays an important role in her favourite topic, self-control: Kathleen Vohs is not only interested in what money makes of people; she also investigates how they deal with it. In a series of experiments, for instance, she revealed that people are more likely to make unconsidered impulse purchases when they had to practise discipline in some other way beforehand. “It seems that, to some extent, our brains don’t function very differently from a muscle,” she notes. “If we make too many demands on it, it stops working at full capacity for a while.”

Saving energy for important decisions

This fact has apparently not escaped the former President of the United States. Barack Obama once told a journalist from “Vanity Fair” that he tried to ration his strength carefully in order to be able to make decisions, which was why he only wore blue or grey suits. Referring to the relevant research findings, he explained that he did not want to be forced to make everyday decisions about what to eat or what to wear. He had to make too many decisions in the course of a day as it was and needed all his energy for those.

So we can come to terms with our brains, but we can also outwit them – with glucose tablets, for example: Kathleen Vohs discovered that taking glucose increases our ability to exercise self-control once again, which is not a lot of help to people on a diet, of course. They are much better off employing a different strategy: “People who are prone to binge eating should take pause in these situations and focus on their values,” Kathleen Vohs suggests. “Our experiments have shown that calling to mind the things in life that are really important to you can help to stop you embarking on imprudent actions, including impulse buying.

“Having to practise discipline makes us all the more susceptible to temptation later on.”

The researcher herself knows exactly what is important to her in her life. Right up the top of her list of priorities, besides her work, is her family. “I was so glad when I got the job at the University of Minnesota nine years ago. At last, I could be near my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews again,” says Vohs, who has already spent some time living in Europe and has travelled across six continents.

She is looking forward to her stay in Germany with a sense of anticipation. Together with Klaus Fiedler and his team of young researchers she wants to continue her research on finding ways of increasing people’s ability to exercise self-control in the long term. So far, Fiedler notes, he has essentially approached the topic in terms of cognitive decision-making. Kathleen Vohs, on the other hand, specialises in consumer behaviour. “I think we will complement each other very well and inspire each other’s work,” the social psychologist concludes.

Kathleen Vohs, in the meantime, is not just looking forward to her work in Heidelberg, but also to the local wines, she says with a twinkle in her eye. After all, even a researcher who devotes so much of her time to self-control is not completely immune to a few guilty pleasures: she admits she finds it difficult to walk past a wine shop without stopping and buying the odd bottle.

Author: Anke Brodmerkel

The article was originally published in Humboldt Kosmos 103/2014.

Humboldt Kosmos is the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s magazine.

Update: October 2017

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