The effects of stress on willpower are a staple of romantic comedies. A character goes through a difficult romantic breakup, and in the next scene, she is sitting on the couch smeared in ice cream with empty wrappers strewn on the couch.
All of us have experienced this kind of failure of self-control. There is some bad habit we are trying to avoid, and we succeed until life gets hectic. Suddenly, it is business-as-usual. Because these breakdowns of willpower are so clear when they happen, you might think that stressful situations bring out your worst behavior.
A fascinating paper in the June, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Neal, Wendy Wood, and Aimee Drolet suggests a different possibility. They argue that in times of stress, we fall back on our habits generally. When those habits are bad, then we experience what we see as a failure of self-control. But, we also fall back on our good habits. We don't notice those as readily, because those behaviors are helpful.
In a naturalistic study to support this view, the researchers explored the behavior of a sample of college students. First, they looked at the strength of a number of habits relating to eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. Some of these behaviors were good (like eating hot cereal for breakfast), while others were bad (eating a pastry for breakfast). For each person, some behaviors were a strong part of their routine, while others were not. A particular individual might generally eat hot cereal, but rarely eat pastry. That person might also tend to read the Op-Ed section of the newspaper, but rarely read the comics.
Over the next four weeks, the researchers continued to track the students' behavior. In two of those weeks, the students had an intense series of exams, while in the other two of those weeks, there were no major exams. The researchers expected that the students would be undergoing more stress in the exam weeks, and so their willpower would be compromised.
When a particular behavior was a strong habit for that person, then they were more likely to engage in that behavior during the stressful exam weeks than during the less stressful non-exam weeks. This reliance on habits was evident both for the good behaviors and the bad ones. So, the lack of willpower drove people to rely on their habits, regardless of whether they were good or bad.
In several other studies, the researchers manipulated stress level for participants. In one study, the researchers tracked the behavior of participants over a series of days. On a few of those days, participants were asked to perform their daily activities with their nondominant hand. So, if they routinely used their left hand while talking on the cell phone, they should now use their right hand. This manipulation is known to cause stress to the willpower system by requiring a lot of effortful self-control.
On the days when participants had to use their non-dominant hand, they were much more likely to perform both good and bad habits than they were on days when they were allowed to use their dominant hand.
Other studies in this paper demonstrated that people fall back on their habits, because they are acting without thinking. They are not explicitly choosing to act based on their habits when their willpower is depleted.
This study adds to a growing literature demonstrating the power of habits in daily action. When the going gets tough, the natural response is to fall back on the behaviors that have carried you through so many other situations in the past.
That is why it is crucial to work on developing good habits. It is hard to rise to the occasion in times of stress. When you have lots of exams, a big project at work, or are going through a stressful period in a relationship, you simply do not have the mental energy to rise to the occasion. Instead, you just want to get through the day. In those cases, your habits will drive a lot of your behavior. The more that your habits push you toward behaviors that support your goals, the better you will do in stressful situations.
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This story appears in the special July 4 issue of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, June 28.