Project 10

Breaking addictive behaviors via attention and self control exercises

Project Leaders: Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice
Team of Investigators: George Anderson, Bruce Rounsaville, Stephanie O’Malley, Rajita Sinha, & Carlos Grilo

Addictive behaviors, such as smoking, drinking and overeating rich, high fat foods are highly prevalent among young adults in the US. Over-indulgence in such behaviors put these young adults at great risk for addiction, thereby posing an important threat to public health.  Self-control may be central to reducing problematic addictive behaviors.

The proposed research will build on the recently emerging basic understanding of self-control as a limited resource capacity. When that resource has been depleted, self-control is likely to fail, potentially resulting in an increase in unhealthy eating, drinking, or smoking. Coping with stress depletes self control, and addictive behaviors are known to increase under stress. 

Although we have previously shown that self control may be strengthened via exercises and that stress indeed depletes self control capacity, social behavioral research to assess whether strengthening self control via exercises could improve self control and decrease addictive behaviors in the real world has been limited. Therefore, in the current proposal we will address this important gap by conducting two projects, each involving a series of randomized controlled experiments. 

Project I encompasses a series of 4 experiments conducted in college students that evaluate the impact of self-control exercises on this limited resource capacity in the laboratory, and among college students choosing to decrease addictive behaviors of overeating, smoking or alcohol use. The initial three experiments aim to develop an efficient training program that strengthens self-control by employing simple and ecologically-valid training techniques. The final experiment examines whether such improvements are maintained during stressful periods marked by elevated risk for addictive indulgence within a naturalistic setting. 

Project II examines the impact of subjective and physiological stress on self-control and addictive behaviors.  This is a new and important contribution to our theory of self-control, as it will help clarify some of the processes by which people develop (or fail to develop) self-control. In Project II, experiment 1 investigates whether the demands for self-control are themselves inherently stressful.  Experiment 2 examines whether glucose provides a way for improvement of self-control under different types of laboratory stressors, and finally experiment 3 assesses the association between stress, self-control and addictive behaviors in a naturalistic setting.

Through collaborative team science, these studies will integrate social and behavioral conceptions of self-control with biological influences on stress and self control. If successful, the proposed research will uniquely apply basic knowledge about self control processes to identify effective ways to change addictive behaviors in the real world setting of college life, and thereby decrease the risk of developing addiction among college students.