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Your hands give you away when it comes to self-control

Our hands reveal the struggle we have with exercising self-control when having to choose between long-term goals and immediate temptation. 

Our hands can easily give us away when it comes to self-control. Scientists form Ohio State University took a novel approach to studying the link between body language and self-control.

In one experiment, participants were made to choose between a healthy treat and an unhealthy one by clicking on their option on the screen of the computer. They had to move the cursor form the center of the screen to the bottom, in order to make their choice.


What the scientists found was that people who moved the cursor closer to the unhealthy treat, even when they ultimately made the healthy choice, later showed less self-control than did those who made a more direct path to the healthy snack.

“Our hand movements reveal the process of exercising self-control,” said Paul Stillman, co-author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in psychology at The Ohio State University. “You can see the struggle as it happens. For those with low self-control, the temptation is actually drawing their hand closer to the less-healthy choice.”

According to the scientists, the results of their experiment shed light on a scholarly debate about what’s happening in the brain when humans harness willpower.

Scientists devised several experiments and they used mouse-tracking in order to correctly asses how humans exercise self-control.

“This mouse-tracking metric could be a powerful new tool to investigate real-time conflict when people have to make decisions related to self-control,” he said.

They used mouse-tracking in order to monitor the moves made by the participants while making their decisions and they found that the trajectories people took appear curved, as if both the temptation and goal were competing from the beginning.

“Some researchers have argued that there are two systems in our brain that are involved in a self-control decision: one that’s impulsive and a second that overcomes the impulses to exert willpower. But if that were the case, the trajectories seen in this study should look different than they do”, Stillman said.


The study suggests that there is no straight path in choosing between temptation and long-term goals.

“That’s not what we found,” Stillman said. “Our results suggest a more dynamical process in which the healthy and unhealthy choices are competing from the very beginning in our brains and there isn’t an abrupt change in thinking. That’s why we get these curved trajectories.”

This study could help scientists gain more insight into our cognitive processes and better equip us with the tools we need in order to exercise more willpower.

Sylvia Jacob