Sweet! Gargling Sugar Water Boosts Self Control

Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

I know this sounds counter-intuitive. Possibly bordering on ridiculous. But it is the truth. If you want to boost your self-control, gargle sugar water. This, according to a study that has been co-authored by University of Georgia professor of psychology Leonard Martin. The study was published October 22 in the journal Psychological Science. A simple mouth rinse with glucose will improve your overall self-control. Allow me to explain.

The study recruited 51 students and had them perform two tasks to test their self-control. The first task, known to deplete self-control, was the arduous act of meticulously crossing out the ‘E’s on a page from a statistics book. This was followed by what is known as the Stroop task. In the Stroop, the students were asked to identify the color of a series of words that flashed on a screen. The words themselves spelled out the names of other colors. The goal of the Stroop is to turn off the student’s tendency to read the words and instead see the colors.

While performing the Stroop task, half of the students would rinse their mouths with lemonade that was sweetened with sugar. The other half of the students used a Splenda-sweetened lemonade. The researchers were able to determine that the students who had rinsed with the sugar were significantly faster at responding to the color rather than the word, as compared to the students that had rinsed with the artificial sweetener.

“Researchers used to think you had to drink the glucose and get it into your body to give you the energy to (have) self control,” Martin said. “After this trial, it seems that glucose stimulates the simple carbohydrate sensors on the tongue. This, in turn, signals the motivational centers of the brain where our self-related goals are represented. These signals tell your body to pay attention.”

In all, it took the students between 3 and 5 minutes to perform the Stroop task. Martin was careful to point out that the results show a measure of self-control, but that a glucose rinse might be ineffectual at combating some of the bigger self-control issues like trying to regulate your weight or the cessation of smoking.

“The research is not clear yet on the effects of swishing with glucose on long-term self-control,” he said. “So, if you are trying to quit smoking, a swish of lemonade may not be the total cure, but it certainly could help you in the short run.”

Collaborating on the study with Martin was co-author Matthew Sanders, a doctoral candidate also in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. The two both believe the motivation towards self-control in their subjects was most likely derived from a form of self-value or emotive investment.

“It is the self-investment,” Martin said. “It doesn’t just crank up your energy, but it cranks up your personal investment in what you are doing. Clicking into the things that are important to you makes those self-related goals salient.”

With this theory in mind, they believe the glucose causes emotive enhancement which leads a person to pay attention to their goals and perform better at the evocation of the non-dominant response.

“The glucose seems to be good at getting you to stop an automatic response such as reading the words in the Stroop task and to substitute the second harder one in its place such as saying the color the word is printed in,” he said. “It can enhance emotive investment and self-relevant goals.”

In other studies on self-control, there was a marked decrease in performance for the second task.

“Previous studies suggest the first task requires so much energy, you just don’t have the energy left for the second task that you need,” Martin said. “We are saying when people engage in self-control, they ignore important aspects of their goals and feelings. If you have to stay late at work, for example, but you really want to be going home, you have to ignore your desire to go home. Doing so will help you stay late at work, but it may also put you out of touch with what you personally want and feel on later tasks. Swishing glucose can focus you back on those goals and feelings and this, in turn, can help you perform better on the second task. In short, we believe self-control goes away because people send away, not because they don’t have energy. People turn it off on purpose.”

Martin was clear in expressing that the focus of his research was more upon the effects of swishing glucose psychologically, rather than physiologically. “We think it makes your self-related goals come to mind,” he said.

Martin and his lab have ongoing studies into how subjects evoke and interpret their emotive responses.

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