Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Mar 29, 2019

Are You Hitting Your Limit, or Getting Stronger? The Power of Reinterpreting Mental Effort

by Alissa Mrazek
climber on edge of rock face outside in mountains, dangling with a rope and holding on the the stone surface with their hands

Listen to your elders, they say. Well, I wasn’t sure what to think when as a seven-year-old I sat in the kitchen and listened to my grandpa. On the table in front of us was a big bag of assorted candy. He polished them all off, piece after piece. “Does Mom know about this?” I sat there wondering. As though sensing my disbelief, he explained with a slightly defensive but definitive tone, “I have a sweet tooth.” I was perplexed. Was a sweet tooth something you “had”? Was it permanent? Did I have one?

Years later, I realized my grandfather was performing a kind of mental gymnastics to attribute his indulgence to an inherent part of his identity. Eating copious sugary snacks was easier to justify that way. He likely thought to himself, I’ve always liked sweets. That’s just who I am. So why bother even trying to resist?

The implication here was that any effort he could exert to resist the candy, or curb his temptation, would be futile. Without even realizing it, his interpretation of effort—as a signal of reaching his personal self-regulation limit—led him to eat every piece of candy. And he isn’t alone. A powerful determinant of self-regulation—our ability to do the things we know we should do—is how we interpret effort.

The ways we interpret effort can differ subtly. For example, Sirisha may view the experience of effort as a sign that she has hit her limit (like my grandpa), while Courtney may interpret a similar experience of effort as a sign that she’s developing her ability to self-regulate. In other words, she’s strengthening her self-discipline. The variations in these interpretations may have meaningful consequences for these two women. One may be more likely to quit, while the other one keeps on trying.

Doing the things we know we ought to do often requires effort. So how can we interpret it in a way that will help us persevere?

Find out more in at Behavioral Scientist.


Alissa Mrazek is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

This post is a shared excerpt from the Behavioral Scientist and is shared with permission.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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