05/27/2013 10:10 am ET | Updated Jul 27, 2013

Avoiding Temptation: Self-Control Requires a Good Night of Sleep

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To quote an early 1990s song, temptation is a part of life. People are tempted to engage in actions that are bad for their health, such as eating a candy bar instead of a vegetable or sitting on the couch instead of exercising. People are tempted to engage in actions that are unethical, such as lying on expense reports or calling in sick when they are not. People are tempted to engage in actions that are harmful to relationships, such as losing their temper or being unfaithful. These and other behaviors have a litany of negative effects on our well-being and success, both individually and collectively.

As research indicates, self-control is crucial in avoiding temptation. Self-control entails facing down these temptations and picking the healthier, more ethical, or less harmful option, even if it is often unappealing at that moment. Whereas we may think of self-control as something that some people have and some people do not, this is actually an inaccurate depiction. Self-control is a scarce resource that can be depleted and refilled over time. So any given individual can have moments in which his or her ability to exert self-control is depleted, leaving the person vulnerable to caving to temptation. So when you are low in self-control, you will be especially likely to eat chocolate instead of a vegetable, or especially likely to lie and cheat, or be less able to suppress your racial prejudices.

Indeed, imagine someone who is unable to control his or her impulsive behavior and always caves to temptations. That person would suffer an endless stream of negative consequences and would possibly be dangerous to others as well. Perhaps this is why the term "impulsive" is generally viewed as an unfavorable trait to have.

Given the importance of self-control, the important question is this: What can we do to enhance our self-control? Must we be ascetic monks, eschewing all worldly temptations to live a life of extreme self-control? The answer is a resounding NO! There is something that you do every night that helps your self-control: sleep. A growing body of research developed by several of my colleagues and I indicates that self-control is replenished while you sleep. One of the reasons this works is that self-control requires blood glucose as a fuel, especially in the portion of the brain responsible for self-control (the pre-frontal cortex). And sleep has been linked to regenerating that glucose in the pre-frontal cortex.

What this means is that if you want to have strong self-control, you need to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. My research shows that sleep on a given night predicts unethical behavior the next day, through the causal mechanism of self-control. A colleague of mine found that losing as little as two hours of sleep (sleeping six hours instead of eight) lead to deviant behavior at work the next day, again because of the effects of sleep on self-control. Some of my other studies indicate that a decrement in self-control is likely the reason that a lack of sleep leads to both cyberloafing and racial prejudice. Other research indicates that for similar reasons, a lack of sleep leads to low levels of exercise, eating more calories, and higher levels of interpersonally inappropriate behavior. Although researchers have not examined every possible form of self-control in the face of temptation, it is reasonable to expect that facing down any type of temptation requires sleep in order to generate a sufficient level of self-control.

Thus, sleep appears to be a master key for our ability to exert self-control. If you find yourself caving to temptation more often that you want, check your sleep habits and consider making sleep a higher priority. If you want to prevent lapses in self-control, maintain a good health sleep pattern with 7-9 good hours of sleep every night. You'll make better choices, be a better person, and have a better life. And you will be more likely to win your battles against temptations.


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