Try to Control Yourself
Why do people cave in to temptation? Kathleen Vohs, assistant professor of marketing in the Carlson School of Management, has a few ideas. With a Ph.D. in psychological and brain science from Dartmouth College, Vohs’s areas of expertise include impulsive spending and eating, feeling duped, the psychological effects of money, and failing at self-control.
Vohs is a 2007 recipient of the prestigious McKnight Land- Grant Professorship, awarded to the University’s most promising junior faculty members whose work demonstrates imagination and innovation, among other criteria. She fi nally caved in and talked to Minnesota about her latest research.
Q: What drew you to the topic of self-control?
Overeating, alcoholism, overspending, and divorce can all be seen, in part, as a failure to exert self-control. The ability to control responses and modify behavior in order to achieve a goal is an essential component of mental and physical health, as well as of relationship success. Managing consumption at the individual level—that is, consumers managing their food intake or their spending—is at the heart of both self-control issues and business concerns. A lot is riding on understanding self-control as it relates to these social crises and their implications for modern life.
Q: You see self-control as a limited resource. How does one replenish it?
We studied over 9,000 people and found that self-control, like a muscle, becomes exhausted with continuous use. Taking time away from self-regulating will replenish your supply of self-control. If a dieter is sitting at a table with a piece of chocolate cake, every minute the cake is there he is exercising self-control. Over time, his self-control becomes exhausted and he may give in and eat the cake. If the cake is taken away, phew, he can take a break from self-regulating, replenishment occurs, and he can again use self-control when the need arises.
Q: Are people born with different amounts of self-control?
It’s part nature and part nurture. Like athletic ability, we can learn to harness this resource and get more out of ourselves. We all have self-control; some choose not to use it. Building self-control is two steps forward, one step back.
Q: Why is it valuable to study this?
My goal is not necessarily to help people. At the end of the day, I’m just a basic scientist. I have a duty to identify the circumstances in which people fail at selfcontrol and how to facilitate its replenishment. I hope that this will set the stage for others to create an intervention model or an outreach program.
Q: Is failure at self-control a U.S. problem?
It’s an industrialized-country problem, but perhaps more so in the United States. We do things big—high risk and high reward. A lot is available to us, so we have to exercise self-control more—and we fail more.
Standing center stage, Dr. Frankenlaw shrugged with wicked glee. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a heart in any law student, so I just put in an extra spleen instead!”
, an irreverent send-up of law school life, a mad professor sets out to create the perfect law student— using the body parts of inadequate students from Hamline, William Mitchell, and St. Thomas. The play was the latest incarnation of a tradition that started five years ago at the University of Minnesota Law School. Each year, more than 70 students get involved in T.O.R.T.—Theatre of the Relatively Talentless—penning the script, acting, operating the lights, and sweeping the stage afterward.
Legal luminaries get in on the action too. This year, Federal District Court Judge John Tunheim (J.D. ’80), Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson (J.D. ’68), Chief Federal District Court Judge James Rosenbaum (J.D. ’69), and his wife, Hennepin County Judge Marilyn Brown, Rosenbaum all made cameos. Former Vice President Walter Mondale (B.A. ’51, J.D. ’56) also made his regular appearance. But not without some comic relief.
Mondale was scripted to pause in his introduction for the sound of thunder. But due to a backstage mishap, nothing happened. Mondale looked up at the expectant audience and said, “Now it says on my paper that there’s supposed to be thun—”
Just then, thunder boomed and drowned him out.
Technical gaffes aside, the annual production’s profile is rising. To accommodate growing attendance, the show moved off campus to the 1,000-seat Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, and sold nearly 1,700 tickets for its two-night run in March, despite a snowstorm.
While the play satirizes the heated competition among law students, its producers fuel it themselves. “One of the original reasons we started T.O.R.T. was because other top law schools in the country—Stanford, Harvard, Michigan—all have drama clubs,” explains law student Anna Pia Nicolas, co-producer of Frankenlaw. “
This has put us on the map. I’ve heard rumors that Harvard is terrified of us now because of how good we’ve gotten.”
An Asteroid Aimed at Us
Late last winter, Earthlings received the startling news that an asteroid could slam into their planet in 2036. Named Apophis for the ancient Egyptian god Apep (“the destroyer”), the asteroid would most likely hit the Pacific Ocean, triggering a tsunami that would level the North American coast. While the odds of this happening are relatively low—1 in 45,000—many scientists believe the danger is real enough to warrant worldwide action.
Some scientists suggest blowing Apophis up, possibly with a nuclear warhead. University of Minnesota astronomy professor Terry Jones favors using a rocket to push Apophis off its path. He believes that while the damage inflicted by an asteroid the size of Apophis, approximately 1,000 feet wide, would not cause global devastation, localized destruction would be catastrophic, similar to that caused by the 1815 explosion of the Indonesian volcano Tambora. Thousands of people died, many from starvation following widespread crop failures. “It wasn’t the end of the world,” Jones says. “But all this talk about Apophis is good because we all need to remember that we live on a little, tiny planet in a big, big universe that can sometimes be a very hostile place.”
Jones doesn’t believe Apophis is cause for panic, however. Calculations on the asteroid’s trajectory are changing rapidly, and 2036 is a long way away. But Jones, who teaches a freshman class called “Cosmic Impacts: Scars on the Earth,” says the media coverage of Apophis has made class discussions more relevant for students who know little about Earth, let alone space. “When you turn on the news, all you hear about is Anna Nicole’s grave. I don’t think people know what’s going on in the natural world. I’ve got students who are surprised that they can go outside and see the moon during the day.”
Overheard on Campus
“ I was 25 the first time I was exposed to Hispanic literature. It changed my life and became my life’s calling. And that was very sad that it happened so late.”
—Louis Mendoza, chair of the Chicano studies department at the University of Minnesota, arguing for filling the gaps in the American literary canon in high schools and universities.
A Slice of Student Life
Since 1971, the University has surveyed its undergraduate students on their activities and interests. Here are a few fi ndings from the fall 2006 Student Interest Survey:
35% commute to campus, compared with 58% in 1981;
39% of men and 29% of women read newspapers frequently, compared with 64% of men and 58% of women in 1971;
74% are involved in student organizations and activities, compared with 54% in 2001 and 34% in 1986;
and 66% of women and 61% of men volunteer off campus, compared with 43% of women and 27% of men in 1991.