How mindfulness can help improve your self-control

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When I was an undergrad at Gettysburg College, my major was psychology, and I took an advanced seminar class on personality psychology taught by Dr. Arlen Moller (now at the Illinois Institute of Technology) where we dove into some really interesting, novel research on a variety of topics. I learned so much that semester about critically analyzing peer-reviewed research papers, and I’ve incorporated my knowledge of behavioral psychology into a lot of my nutrition education.

One of the major theories we studied was self-control, and I used that theory to design a research study to test the effect that mindful eating would have on later self-control ability. While self-control is typically described using an energy model, I had theorized that using mindfulness while exerting self-control would actually reduce the amount of self-control energy required to complete that task. I specifically was interested in the use of self-control in eating healthily, since choosing a healthier option when presented with a more delicious, unhealthy option is typically pretty taxing on one’s self-control strength. My thought was that eating the healthier food mindfully would actually reduce the amount of self-control it took to do so.

I tested that theory using the “cookie and radish” paradigm developed by Baumeister (1998), incorporating a mindful eating exercise into the experimental condition. My professor also encouraged me to test the theory that autonomous self-control is less depleting than externally controlled self-control; in other words, when you support someone’s autonomy (freedom to choose for themselves) rather than forcing them to do something, it’s easier for the person to exert self-control.

In the end, we discovered that the mindful eating instructions caused the self-control exercise (eating radishes instead of cookies) to be much easier and less depleting of the participant’s self-control strength. It was really cool to have significant findings in a novel research study, and I got to present my study in two separate occasions and received Honors distinction from the college in recognition of my work. My advisors and I collaborated with Dr. Kirk Brown from VCU in an attempt to get the paper published, but the reviewers decided that we needed further experimentation to better support our findings. It was a bummer because none of us had time to run another study, and I had already graduated!

If you’re doing social psychology research and might be willing to run the follow up study needed to get it back under review, email me at and we can chat!

 The Effects of Mindfulness and Autonomy Support on Ego-Depletion

Kirk Warren Brown

Virginia Commonwealth University

Laura Schoenfeld & Paul R. D’Agostino

Gettysburg College

Arlen C. Moller

Northwestern University

Self-control has been defined as the ability to regulate one’s behaviors to accord with values, morals, or social expectations, and to support the successful pursuit of long-term goals (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007). Humans regularly exercise self-control to guide decision making and others behaviors, particularly when desires and goals conflict. Failure to exert self-control can lead to undesirable consequences, including emotional difficulties, lack of persistence, poor achievement, and task performance failures (Baumeister et al., 2007).

Research by Baumeister and colleagues has supported an energy model of self-control, such that self-control ability appears to depend on a limited resource known as “ego-strength.” Exerting self-control uses or depletes energy, such that successive acts of self-control detrimentally impact subsequent self-control efforts. In an early study, Baumeister et al. (1998; Study 1) found that an initial act of self-control – eating radishes while simultaneously resisting the temptation to eat fresh chocolate chip cookies – impaired subjects’ subsequent persistence at an unsolvable puzzle task, suggesting that the preliminary self-control task of radish-eating depleted subjects’ ego-strength. Subsequent studies have demonstrated that the more initial self-control that individuals exert, the more self-control resources they appear to deplete (e.g., Vohs & Heatherton, 2000).

A social factor ameliorating ego-depletion

While the relation between self-control efforts and ego-depletion, and between self-control exercise and ego-strength appears to be direct, recent research has demonstrated that social factors can moderate the link between even single instances of self-control exertion and ego-depletion. In particular, autonomy support, the provision of choice regarding the performance of a task, has been shown to lead to significantly less ego-depletion and better self-control performance on a subsequent task (Moller, Deci, & Ryan, 2006). Muraven, Gagné, and Rosman (2008) also demonstrated that individuals whose autonomy was supported by the experimenter while exerting self-control (e.g., not eating cookies; “We ask that you please don’t eat the cookies. Is that okay?”) performed better on a subsequent test of self-control as compared to individuals who received controlling instructions while performing the self-control task (“You must not eat the cookies”). This research also found evidence that subjective vitality, defined as a “subjective feeling of aliveness and energy” (Ryan & Frederick, 1997; p. 529) was higher immediately after the self-controlled eating task when participants were autonomously supported (vs. controlled).

A psychological factor ameliorating ego depletion

Are there internal resources that can ameliorate ego depletion? A number of influential organismic and cybernetic theories of behavioral regulation place central emphasis upon attention, the capacity to bring consciousness to bear on events and experience as they unfold in real time (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1981; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). These perspectives agree that attention enhances self-regulation because, the more fully one is apprised of what is occurring internally and in the environment, the more healthy, adaptive, and value-consistent one’s behavior is likely to be. Consistent with this premise, recent research on mindfulness indicates that this quality of attention can foster well-regulated behavior (see Brown, Ryan & Creswell, 2007 for review).

Mindfulness has been defined as a receptive attention to present events and experience (Brown & Ryan, 2003). A mindful individual can be described as openly “observing” moment-to-moment events and experience rather than evaluating what is occurring through discursive thought. Research suggests that bringing mindful attention to a task can facilitate disengagement from disruptive thoughts or feelings that can interfere with successful task completion (Brown et al., 2007). Leary and Tate (2007) suggest that the nonevaluative aspect of mindfulness permits the individual to attend to even threatening experience, which may aid self-regulation by dampening reactive thoughts and emotions, fostering insight into the objective nature of the situation, and allowing a greater degree of control over subsequent behavior. The nonevaluative aspect of trait mindfulness has been related to greater persistence on a challenging laboratory task, an outcome that is an established measure of self-regulatory strength (Evans, Baer, & Segerstrom, 2009).

By contrast, other theorists have posited that mindfulness may impair self-control. For example, models of self-control that consider distraction an adaptive coping mechanism might predict that mindful attention would be disruptive to self-control (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriquez, 1989). Masicampo and Baumeister (2007) went a step further, positing that mindful attention is itself simply another form of self-control exercise. As such, based on their limited ego-strength model of self-control, mindful self-control should be more ego-depleting than otherwise comparable self-control performed less mindfully.

The primary purpose of the present experiment was to examine whether mindfulness ameliorates ego-depletion when self-control strength is tested. We hypothesized that when in a mindful state, individuals would find a self-control task less depleting, leaving more energy for a subsequent test of self-control strength. The validity of this hypothesis rests on the assumption that the exercise of mindfulness is not itself a form of self control, as suggested by Masicampo and Baumeister (2007).

If mindfulness and self-control represent the same function, then a single instance of mindful attention induced during a task should lead to the same ego depletion as other forms of self control, and should lead to poorer performance on a subsequent self-control task (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2007). Conversely if, as we propose, mindfulness is a form of attention that informs thought and action, then levels of ego depletion should be lower after engaging in a self-control task than when mindful attention is not deployed. We hypothesized that mindfulness would ameliorate the effect of an otherwise ego depleting task, as revealed by three outcomes: a sense of vitality after the task, as well as two measures of subsequent task performance, namely, number of attempts made and total time spent to solve an unsolvable maze puzzle.

It is clear that social and internal factors can operate simultaneously to promote self-regulated behavior, and a secondary purpose of this study was to replicate results showing that autonomy support (vs. control) can foster self-control (e.g., Muraven et al., 2008). In accord with past research we hypothesized that autonomy support would ameliorate the effects of a self control task on subjective vitality and subsequent puzzle task performance. Finally, since there is also evidence that mindfulness can enhance autonomous functioning (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Levesque & Brown, 2007), in this study we examined whether mindful attention to a self-control task combined with autonomy supportive instructions would interact to show even greater vitality and persistence at the subsequent test for self-control strength (puzzle) than either condition alone.



Seventy-six students (45 female, 31 male) at a small Northeastern college between the ages of 18 and 22 participated in exchange for entrance into a raffle to win one of seven monetary prizes valued between $25 and $100.


The procedure was adapted from Baumeister et al.’s (1998) radish-eating paradigm (see also Muraven et al., 2008). A plate of radishes was presented next to a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies. All participants were informed that they had been assigned to the radish-eating condition and half were randomized to either a mindful eating condition or a no-instruction (neutral) comparison condition. Those in the mindfulness condition were first led through a brief mindful eating exercise, wherein they were instructed to eat the first bite of the radish with an objective focus, paying close attention to sensory experiences and noticing and letting go of judgmental thoughts. After the mindfulness induction, participants were asked to continue this method of mindful eating for five minutes while they ate at least two more radishes. After a no-instruction practice eating trial, subjects in the neutral comparison condition were simply told that they would be given 5 minutes to eat at least two more radishes.

In this 2 x 2 between-groups design, subjects were also randomly assigned to either an autonomy supportive or controlling instructions condition. In the autonomy supportive condition, the experimenter provided a full rationale for the task, encouraged choice in how to eat the radishes, and allowed participants to ask questions about the procedure (“What questions may I answer for you?”). In the controlling condition, the experimenter provided no rationale, imposed control over task performance (e.g., “You must do this.”) and expressed little interest in participants’ questions.

After eating radishes for 5 minutes, the experimenter returned, removed the food, and asked participants to complete two measures. First, two items from the well-established Brief Mood Introspection Scale (BMIS; Mayer & Gaschke, 1988) were completed – “tired” and “fed up” – both theoretically related to self-control failure. The items were rated on a 4-point scale from 1 (definitely do not feel) to 4 (definitely feel). Next, the 7-item Subjective Vitality scale (Ryan & Frederick, 1997) was completed. This scale assesses the subjective sense of aliveness and energy. Items include “I feel alive and vital,” rated a seven-point Likert scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The scale shows good internal consistency, = .86 (Ryan & Frederick, 1997).

Participants were then asked to wait 20 minutes while the sensory experience of the radishes faded before beginning the next part of the study; they were told that during the wait they would complete a puzzle task to exercise their problem solving abilities. The goal of the puzzles was to trace over all the lines of a geometric diagram without lifting the pen from the figure or tracing over any line twice (Baumeister et al., 1998; Study 1).

The experimenter first demonstrated a correct solution to an easy sample puzzle. Then participants completed a solvable practice puzzle to show that they understood the task, after which they were given an unsolvable puzzle to solve. Participants were instructed that every time they wished to attempt a new solution, they were to put their failed attempt in a pile to their right, and to attempt a new copy of the puzzle. A maximum of 20 minutes to work on the puzzles was permitted. The number of attempted puzzles and the total time taken were the main dependent measures of ego-depletion. After each participant had either given up or the time had run out, s/he was debriefed and dismissed.


Sex of participant was not a significant predictor in any of the analyses (all ps > .13) so will not be further considered. Also, there were no main effects of autonomy condition, mindfulness condition, nor their interaction on the mood state of the participants, as measured by the BMIS items (all ps > .10). These results help to rule out the possibility that any effect of instructions on task performance was simply due to mood state.

Table 1 presents the average subjective vitality scores as a function of mindfulness and autonomy conditions. A two-way ANOVA on the vitality scores indicated that the main effect of mindfulness was significant, F (1, 75) = 6.44, p < .01, p2 = .08, where subjects in the mindful condition reported significantly higher subjective vitality scores than those in the control condition. The main effect of autonomy support was not significant, F < 1.0. There was no interaction between mindfulness and autonomy support predicting vitality, F < 1.0.

Table 2 presents the average number of puzzle attempts as a function of mindfulness and autonomy conditions. A two-way ANOVA on the number of puzzle attempts for each participant indicated that the main effect of mindfulness was significant, F (1, 75) = 6.03, p < .05, p2 = .08, where participants in the mindful induction condition demonstrated significantly more effortful persistence on the puzzle task than those who were given no instructions. The main effect of autonomy supportive instructions on the number of puzzle attempts was also significant, F (1, 75) = 5.73, p < .05, p2 = .07, where subjects in the autonomy supportive condition demonstrated significantly more effort than those in the controlling condition. There was no significant interaction between mindfulness and autonomy support on puzzle attempts, F (1, 75) = 1.22, p > .27, suggesting the effects of each condition were additive.

Finally, Table 3 presents the average time (in minutes) spent on the unsolvable puzzle as a function of mindfulness and autonomy conditions. A two-way ANOVA on the time spent attempting the puzzle demonstrated a significant main effect of autonomy condition, F (1, 75) = 9.81, p < .01, p2 = .12, where subjects in the autonomy supportive condition spent significantly more time on the puzzles than those in the controlled condition. The main effect of mindfulness was not significant, F < 1.0, though the pattern of means was in the predicted direction. There was no interaction between mindfulness and autonomy support predicting time spent on the puzzles, F (1,75) = 1.61, p > .20.


In this experiment, participants who mindfully engaged in a self-control task (eating radishes) demonstrated higher vitality and better persistence in a subsequent self-control task (more unsolvable puzzle attempts) than those who had not been given mindful eating instructions. Thus, the primary hypothesis of the study was mostly supported: mindful engagement of a self-control task led to less subsequent ego depletion than normative engagement of the task. This evidence suggests that mindfulness is not simply a form of self-control, but rather a quality of attention that appears to facilitate self-control, as reflected in higher subjective vitality after a task shown in past research to deplete energy (e.g., Muraven et al., 2008) as well as more effort expended in a subsequent task.

The study also replicated prior research demonstrating that autonomy supportive instructions led to greater subsequent self-control strength than controlling instructions (more puzzle attempts and more time spent on them), although autonomy support did not predict higher subjective vitality after the first self control task. Importantly, there was no interaction between the two independent variables; mindfulness and autonomy support had independent, significant benefits for subsequent self-control during the puzzle task. These results generally suggest that both social supports and internal supports for self-control are effective in ameliorating ego depleting effects on task performance.

Limitations and Future Directions

Some readers may be confused by our finding that experimentally induced mindful self-regulation significantly predicted less ego-depletion as indicated by number of attempts on the unsolvable puzzles, but was not significantly related to the amount of time participants persisted on those puzzles. Both number of attempts and time of persistence have been used in prior studies as complementary indicators of ego-depletion (Baumeister et al., 1998). However, in retrospect, we think there are a number of plausible explanations for finding the predicted effect in one case (number of attempts) and not the other (time). First, because of time constraints, participants in the present study were stopped after persisting for a maximum of 20 minutes; however, other studies that have used the unsolvable puzzle task have allowed participants to persist longer, for a maximum of 30 minutes before stopping (Baumeister et al., 1998; Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, Twenge, & 2005; Wan & Sternthal, 2008). Over one third of our sample (37%) hit the maximum time allotted, an indication that stopping persistence after only 20 minutes (rather than 30) may have constrained the range, and masked the effect for time. Second, we note that studies on ego-depletion have employed a wide range of dependent indicators (for a review see Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010), and that numerous studies have used number of attempts on a problem solving activity as their primary indicator of depletion, without assessing time of persistence at all (e.g., Evans & Johnson, 2000; Schmeichel, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2003)

This study was limited in its focus on only one self-control task, namely eating radishes, and the generalizability of the findings must be tested in future research. Notably, earlier studies have contrasted a low self-control task (eating cookies) with the self-control task (eating radishes) used in the present study (Baumeister et al., 1998; Muraven et al., 2008). However, we did not expect mindfulness or autonomy to moderate ego-depletion resulting from a low self-control task because Baumeister et al. (1998) and Muraven et al.’s (2008) found no evidence of ego-depletion following such a task (i.e., there was no effect to moderate). Thus, a low self-control task comparison condition was not included in the present study.

In the present study, control for the manipulation of mindfulness used a passive (no instruction) rather than active comparison condition; thus it is possible that experimenter attention, the passage of time, or other artifacts carried some responsibility for the effect of the mindfulness instruction observed here. In general, the present results require replication with tighter controls and multiple self-control tasks and outcomes before more definitive conclusions can be made about the value of mindful and autonomous engagement of self-control tasks.

With this need for basic research in mind, these results also suggest avenues for applied research. For example, research may fruitfully examine the value of mindfulness training (e.g., Kabat-Zinn, 1990) for populations in need of self-control improvement, such as among those with attention deficit disorders; for those implementing dietary and exercise regimes; and among those seeking to break addictive habits (e.g., smoking, gambling, drug use). Understanding the internal and social factors that can enhance self-control abilities may lead to better behavior regulation and a concomitant enhancement of life skills and well-being.


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998) Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

Baumeister, R.F., Dewall, C.N., Ciarocco, N.J., & Twenge, J.M. (2005). Social Exclusion Impairs Self-Regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 589-604.

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Table 1

Means and Standard Deviations of Subjective Vitality Score as a Function of Mindfulness and Autonomy Conditions

Mindfulness condition

Autonomy condition Neutral Mindful Total

Autonomy supportive

M 24.64 28.70 26.71

SD 6.44 7.45 7.19


M 24.53 28.53 26.53

SD 6.19 5.29 6.03


M 24.59 28.62 26.63

SD 6.24 6.49 6.65


Table 2

Means and Standard Deviations of Puzzle Attempts as a Function of Mindfulness and Autonomy Condition

Mindfulness condition

Autonomy condition Neutral Mindful Total

Autonomy supportive

M 14.00 20.53 17.18

SD 7.28 9.21 8.81


M 11.63 14.11 12.84

SD 5.77 9.27 7.67


M 12.84 17.41 15.06

SD 6.61 9.67 8.51


Table 3

Means and Standard Deviations of Time Spent on Puzzle (in Minutes) as a Function of Mindfulness and Autonomy Condition

Mindfulness condition

Autonomy condition Neutral Mindful Total

Autonomy supportive

M 16:43 18:12 17:26

SD 4:10 3:03 3:42


M 14:48 13:40 14:15

SD 5:10 5:12 5:08


M 15:47 16:00 15:53

SD 4:43 4:46 4:42




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I'm a women's health expert and a registered dietitian (RD) with a passion for helping goal-oriented people fuel their purpose.

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