By Kevin LaPoint, PhD, Volunteer
Courses taught by the Conflict Center are designed to empower individuals to regulate their own anger, mediate conflicts, and build better relationships with others. One of the most important skills we teach is self-awareness, which provides the basis for enhanced self-control when dealing with conflict. For example, students in the center’s classes are taught to recognize how their body and emotions change in response to anger–to know their internal “temperature” during heated situations. Being alert to when you’re losing control in an argument provides a crucial opportunity for individuals to take charge of themselves, begin “cool down” practices, and make healthier decisions.
Psychological research has long demonstrated the link between an individual’s capacity for self-control and the tendency towards aggression. Those with low self-control during charged confrontations are more likely to react with angry outbursts of verbal, emotional, and/or physical violence.
Last month, three psychologists published a summary of multiple recent studies that provide new insights into the power of self-control. In the March 2012 edition of “Current Directions in Psychological Science,” Dr. Thomas F. Denson and his colleagues wrote that increasing an individual’s ability to self-regulate during non-conflict situations indirectly leads to improved self-control when ultimately facing conflict.
According to Denson, almost everyone prefers to avoid violence. Even those with a history of aggression would rather not lash out at others. “It’s not that aggressive people don’t want to control themselves,” he stated. “They just aren’t very good at it.”
This was demonstrated in studies of brain-imaging (MRI) that revealed how even individuals with violent tendencies try to prevent themselves from reacting aggressively. The same areas of the brain that regulate self-control in others are activated for them during conflicts. Psychologically, they want to restrain themselves from violent outbursts and struggle to maintain command of their responses. However, they are more prone to aggression because they cannot keep saying this internalized “no” for long periods of time. Simply stated, they get quickly exhausted.
Now researchers have found that almost anyone can improve their stamina for self-restraint. By making the effort to practice small disciplines in everyday life–to take the time to pause and make a conscious decision about how to act–individuals will become better at staying in control in all types of situations from the cool and routine to the heated.
In one experiment demonstrating this principle, subjects were asked to practice using their non-dominant hand for two weeks. So right handed people had to switch to their left hand for daily activities such as using silverware and brushing their teeth. Making this switch required participants to repeatedly stop themselves from using their normal hand preference and consciously adjust their behavior. This practice forced them to develop better self-awareness and self-control.
After two weeks, the experimental group was tested for reactive tendencies for aggression along with a second (control) group that never had to change any hand use. Results showed that those who had been using their non-dominant hand for the past two weeks were significantly less likely to be stimulated by inflammatory provocations from others. They remained calmer in the face of insults and taunts, and were more often able to respond without becoming angry. The increased self-control they had developed from the hand-switching practice apparently improved their ability to self-regulate during conflict as well.
“The most interesting findings that have come out of this is that if you give aggressive people the opportunity to improve their self-control, they’re less aggressive,” Denson concluded. “It’s possible to practice self-control the same way you would practice the piano.”
So if you want to gain better control over your anger, interact more effectively with an annoying coworker or neighbor, or make heathier choices the next time you argue with your partner, parent, or child, it might be useful to adopt some type of simple behavior modification practice into your everday life. You might try using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth and use silverware for a few weeks. Or perhaps begin making a conscious decision to sit up straighter while working at a desk or computer. Maybe start a meditation routine that requires you to sit quietly for several minutes at a time each day. Denson’s research review suggests that adopting any such technique which trains you to pause, think about what you’re doing, and make a thoughtful decision will build your capacity for self-control in all types of situations.
Of course, these techniques that can improve your discipline require, well, discipline. “It’s just like practicing anything, really – it’s hard at first,” Denson conceded. But “if you practice over the long term, your self-control capacity gets stronger over time.” And as the Conflict Center teaches again and again and again to thousands of program participants every year, developing skills that promote a more peaceful world are worth the effort.
Denson, T. F., DeWall, C. N., & Finkel, E. J. 2012. Self-control and aggression. Current Directions in Psychological Science.