Chocolate Cake Resistance

It is now a well-established proposition that both self-control and cognitive effort are forms of mental work. Several psychological studies have shown that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation.

Imagine that you are asked to retain a list of seven digits for a minute or two. You are told that remembering the digits is your top priority. While your attention is focused on the digits, you are offered a choice between two desserts: a sinful chocolate cake and a virtuous fruit salad. The evidence suggests that you would be more likely to select the tempting chocolate cake when your mind is loaded with digits.

People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations. A few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night. The self-control of morning people is impaired at night; the reverse is true of night people. Too much concern about how well one is doing in a task sometimes disrupts performance by loading short-term memory with pointless anxious thoughts.

The conclusion is straightforward: self-control requires attention and effort.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow