Eat Less by Staying Humble: Self-Control Psychology

Self-control is hard, and finding the strength to resist temptation can take all we’ve got sometimes. When you’re sitting at the Thanksgiving table this Thursday, however, take the “real meaning” of Thanksgiving to heart, and you might find that it helps you overcome the temptation to take that third scoop of potatoes.

selfcontrol1I’m talking about staying humble and focusing on what you’re grateful for without boasting or getting wrapped up in your personal needs. New research shows that humility improves self-control strength. Okay, so what’s the psychology that going on here?

The Psychology of Humility

Despite the major philosophical traditions of the world emphasizing the virtues of humility, psychologists have not gotten very far in understanding what the core benefits really are. We have a few answers, though.

thanksgiving2For example, some research has linked humility with seeking self-improvement, and other research has connected it to a better ability to hang onto one’s self-esteem in times of failure. Still other studies have found that humility is associated with being able to develop stronger social bonds.

But the research that’s out there just looks at people who are already relatively humble and sees how their lives differ from people who are less humble. Although it’s helpful to know that these individual differences in humility are associated with a range of experiences like empathy, forgiveness, and respect for others, still little is known about what happens when you lead people to become more humble.

Humility and Self-Control Psychology

Recently, some psychologists have tested whether guiding people to be more humble could improve their self-control success. They drew upon previous findings that (a) humble people are especially likely to focus on other people’s concerns and (b) when people think about their values that transcend their own self-focused needs, they actually show better personal self-control.

So, in one recent study, researchers simply asked people to remember a time when they felt humble. They were asked to consider what had happened and what they did. That’s it! Just remember a time when you felt humble.

mmsThen the participants thought they were waiting for the next part of the study, and as a small thank-you gift, the researchers put a bowl of M&Ms in front of each participant. They said the participant was free to have as many as he or she liked while they waited. As you might have guessed, the researchers actually secretly recorded how many M&Ms the participant ate.[1]  Although I don’t envy the research assistants. Their method was that each time they did the study, they made sure there were 60 candies in the bowl. After the study, they counted up how many individual M&Ms had been eaten. That’s a lot of candies to count…

Compared to a group of participants who were just asked to think about a mundane day in their lives, the people who had reflected on a time when they were humble ate fewer M&Ms when given the chance!

Even further, if you just consider whether people ate any of the chocolate at all, 40% of people who thought about humility didn’t eat any M&Ms, compared to just 12% of the people in the control condition.

Give Thanks, Be Humble, Stay in Control

The whole point here is that you can have more self-control success by simply focusing away from yourself and onto other people’s needs through the simple act of humility. And it’s not just controlling your eating—the same researchers have shown that humility can lead to greater physical stamina and better ability to persevere when the going gets tough.

So this Thanksgiving, remember that the idea is to be grateful, think of others, and embrace the virtues of humility. If you do that sincerely, you might find the pecan pie’s beckoning call gets a little quieter.


For more self-control psychology, check out this online course I just released: Self-Control Psychology: Lose Weight with Mental Tricks. I cover all sorts of tips and tricks that will help improve your self-control, based on scientific research in social psychology.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   Although I don’t envy the research assistants. Their method was that each time they did the study, they made sure there were 60 candies in the bowl. After the study, they counted up how many individual M&Ms had been eaten. That’s a lot of candies to count…

3 thoughts on “Eat Less by Staying Humble: Self-Control Psychology

  1. This makes perfect sense. I have also noticed it in my life. The less I think of myself and make myself the center of my world, the more control I have over my life. “He that is down need fear no fall”. There’s a bigger world out there, there is a bigger plan out there: salvation. This again is not in anyway all-inclusive there are some outliers. Some people actually need to pay a little more attention to themselves to lose weight. They are so busy taking care of everyone else, and worrying about everyone else that they don’t pay attention to themselves. There are also other outliers I may not have mentioned.

  2. I wondered if humility assists self-control because we are more self-critical & doubtful, so more likely to wonder if an idea or instinctive impulse that pops into our head is any good.

    I think this has been true of me at time in my life when external circumstances, such as a promotion, have made me think I’m wonderful so I’ll be more spontaneous & inappropriately impulsive, until I get into a total mess from the idiocy of my actions.

    Also I think narcissism is the religion of our age, and pillars of the community such as corporate TV advertisers want people to be impulsive idiots, so we have quite a problem.

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