The daily grind of life can wear our patience levels thin and bring up occasional feelings of annoyance. However, most people don’t act on this frustration in an aggressive way — and a new review article in Current Directions in Psychological Science finds that the reason for this is self-control.

Studies have shown that a person can deplete their reserve of self-control — criminologists and sociologists surmise that people tend to commit violent crimes when self-control is low and opportunity is high — or they can strengthen it through practice.

“It’s an impulsive kind of thing,” explains co-author Thomas Denson.

For roughly 10 years, psychologists have experimented with the ways self-control can be manipulated and found a strong links between self-control and aggression:

“A psychological scientist can deplete someone’s self-control by telling the subject they’re not allowed to take one of the cookies sitting in front of them. Studies have found that, after people have had to control themselves for a while, they behave more aggressively. In a 2009 study, after someone’s self-control was depleted, they were more likely to respond aggressively to nasty feedback that ostensibly came from their husband or girlfriend. Specifically, they assigned their partner to hold a painful yoga pose for longer. On the other hand, it’s also possible to practice self-control the same way you would practice the piano. In Denson’s experiments, he has people try to use their non-dominant hand for two weeks. So, if they’re right-handed, they’re told to use their left hand ‘for pretty much anything that’s safe to do,’ he says. ‘Using the mouse, stirring your coffee, opening doors. This requires people to practice self-control because their habitual tendency is to use their dominant hands.’ After two weeks, people who have practiced self-control control their aggression better. In one experiment, they’re mildly insulted by another student and have the option of retaliating with a blast of white noise — but people who have practiced self-control respond less aggressively.”

“The most interesting findings that have come out of this,” Denson says, “[are] that if you give aggressive people the opportunity to improve their self-control, they’re less aggressive.”

It’s important to note that it isn’t that aggressive people don’t want to control themselves; they’re just not good at it. According to research, if an aggressive person’s brain activity was monitored while they were being insulted, the parts of the brain involved in self-control would actually be more active than in people who are less aggressive. This suggests that it could be possible to teach people with aggression problems how to control themselves.

Though Denson warns that practicing limiting your aggression in the short-term could deplete your self-control and make it harder to control your impulse for the time being, “[Practicing] that over the long-term, your self-control capacity gets stronger over time,” he said. “It’s just like practicing anything, really — it’s hard at first.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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