Self-control training attenuates the processing of distracting stimuli

by Timothy Schofield

Institution: University of New South Wales
Department: Psychology
Year: 2014
Keywords: Awareness; Self-control; Inattentional blindness; Mind wandering; Training
Record ID: 1054287
Full text PDF: http://handle.unsw.edu.au/1959.4/53934


Self-control is a capability that modern humans strive to master. A key postulate of dual-process models of self-control is that self-control will fail when impulses exceed regulatory capacities. Dual process models suggest two routes to improving self-control. One way to improve self-control is to bolster regulatory capacity. Another way to maintain self-control may be to be unaware of stimuli that elicit unwanted impulses. To this end, I investigated the effect of experimentally bolstering self-regulatory capability on distractor processing and awareness. I expected that, when engaged in goal-oriented tasks, self-control training (SCT) would help people filter distractors from conscious awareness and attenuate the extent to which they were processed. Participants in this study practiced self-control through daily behavioural-inhibition training. They were asked to use their non-dominant hand for everyday tasks for a two-week period between two laboratory sessions. SCT procedures are thought to improve a person’s self-control because it necessitates monitoring of behaviour, detection of habitual responses, suppression of these responses, and the exertion of a new self-controlled response. In this way, participants practiced self-control for two weeks. Participants who completed SCT were less likely than participants in the control condition to have their attention captured by irrelevant material when becoming familiar with a task (Experiment 1); were less likely to notice distracting stimuli and become distracted (Experiments 2 and 4); and were less likely to non-consciously process distracting stimuli (Experiment 3). Motivational changes were also observed. Specifically, SCT attenuated approach-motivations when there was a high potential to earn a reward (Experiment 1). In sum, I found evidence that SCT alters awareness of cues that could impede goal-pursuit. These findings support recent theoretical suggestions that good self-control is comprised of more than response inhibition. Specifically, high levels of self-control capacity may also be characterised by immunity to distraction.