Would People Who Drink a Lot of Soda Have a Greater Reserve of Self-Control?

Recent research suggests that self-control or willpower can be “boosted” by drinking a sugary drink. This is because scientists think that self-control is like some kind of energy or muscle. This muscle allows us to fight temptations like resisting that extra slice of cake when you’re on a diet, that additional glass of wine when you’re trying to cut down on alcohol, or that cigarette if you’re trying to quit smoking. But it only works for so long, after which the resource becomes depleted, leaving us at the mercy of our impulses.

Since self-control requires considerable mental effort, scientists propose that it drains the brain of glucose, the principal metabolic fuel for the brain. Drinking glucose may replenish it and boost self-control reserves. However, our recent study conducted at Curtin University found that actually just tasting glucose has the same effect, suggesting that the effects may be perceptual rather than metabolic. The presence of sugar in the mouth may send signals to the brain and stimulate areas that promote increased motivation. So you don’t have to actually drink the glucose to boost your self-control, just rinse it in your mouth.

It is important to stress that this tends to work only when your self-control or willpower is low, so knowing when to use this “trick” to boost willpower is important. Also, people who drink a lot of sugary sodas may, ironically, have low self-control, as they find it difficult to resist the temptation of lots of sugar. So the focus would have to be on tasting the glucose rather than drinking lots of soda. And remember to brush or chew sugar-free gum after—it’s better for your teeth!

Martin Hagger is a professor of psychology at Curtin University.

Category: Q&A

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