Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pitfalls of Self-Control

From Scientific American.
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. … 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.

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. [Emphasis added] That outcome is presumably because they were not working so hard at monitoring and curbing what they said. It may seem counter-intuitive, 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.

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