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    Tuesday, September 15, 2015

    Improving Self-Control by Enhancing Working Memory

      Working memory and attention are closely related concepts (link is external). Working memory is defined as the ability to control attention, and distraction (e.g., irrelevant emails or text messages). WMC is critical for maintaining self-control in pursuing a wide variety of goals (link is external), such as healthy eating, addiction, and impulse control (link is external). For example, WMC helps dieters to focus their attention and resist distraction. Individuals with better working memory (and higher intelligence) are more skillful at shifting attention away from the tempting aspects of the immediate rewards. They have superior attentional control compared to those with low capacity and as a result are less susceptible to distractions.

    Individuals low in WMC show limited capacity to inhibit impulsive responses. For example, people with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to have difficulty with working memory capacity, and that deficit could be responsible for their tendency to be distracted and exhibit poorer self-control behaviors (link is external)(e.g., speaking before one should).

    Successful self-control involves the active maintenance of goals and goal-relevant information in working memory (link is external). WMC is about keeping access to goal-relevant information and suppressing goal-irrelevant information. Working memory keeps information up front just when we need it, such as solving a problem or remembering instructions. Working memory also suppresses irrelevant information to shield goal-relevant information from interference. Failure to remember the intention to act on the intended goal represents a common reason for failure to get started on one’s goal (e.g., exercise). For example, if our current goal is shopping for health food, when entering the grocery store, we protect our goal by preventing goal-irrelevant stimuli (high-caloric foods) to gain access to our working memory. The ability to delete quickly irrelevant information (tempting thoughts) from working memory may increase the chances to achieve self-control goals (buying health foods).

    Working memory has limited capacity. That is, we are more likely to forget a longer instruction than a short one. When task is mentally demanding, the students within the lower working memory find it hard to concentrate. WMC limitations primarily reflect resource limitations rather than information storage limitations. Like money, attention is the ultimate scarce cognitive resource that needs to be allocated wisely. The more attention is devoted to one task, the less is available for other tasks (i.e., opportunity cost of attention), and it is difficult to focus one’s attention on more than one thing at a time.

    Working memory can be temporarily impaired by anxiety or stress, craving, and alcohol intoxications. This means that the demands on the WMC exceed its limited resources. For example, stress and anxiety consume the available working memory resources, which might otherwise be used for self-control behaviors. For instance, according to the next-in-line effect, people are least likely to remember what the person who immediately spoke before them, because at the moment they were most self-absorbed. When people devoted too much attention to themselves, they leave little cognitive room for other kinds of mental processes (link is external). Cravings may compromise self-control by hijacking working memory (taking up working memory resources) in the service of short-term goal fulfillment. The impairment leaves us less able to control impulses.

    Researcher (link is external)studying twins have found that working memory capacity is largely (at least 50%) hereditary. However, there are several strategies to make it easier for overcoming a poor working memory or reducing demands on working memory. For example, using a briefer instruction that doesn’t overload working memory, or reducing number of distractions. From an economizing perspective ignoring useless information can help people increase their capacity to remember what is really important. That is why we refuse to try to solve a problem while driving, because it requires mental effort. We can avoid mental overload by dividing our tasks into multiple easy steps

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     This topic brought to you from psychologytoday.com
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