Does Willpower Play a Role in Addiction Recovery After All?
Does Willpower Play a Role in Addiction Recovery After All?

A new study has found that if you’re stressed, tired or otherwise straining your brain power, you may find it harder to ignore cues in the environment that signal something ‘rewarding’, yet if individuals have control of “executive function”, they can moderate behavior.

“We knew already that participants find it hard to ignore cues that signal a large reward,” says study lead Dr Poppy Watson at UNSW.

But this experiment showed — for the first time — that ignoring these cues became harder as soon as participants had to perform a task while also holding other information in their memory.

“We have a set of control resources that are guiding us and helping us suppress these unwanted signals of reward. But when those resources are taxed, these become more and more difficult to ignore.”

Up until now, researchers didn’t know whether people’s general inability to ignore reward cues is just something we have no control over or whether we do use our executive control processes to constantly work against distractions.

But now it’s become clear that the latter is the case — although unfortunately this resource is limited.

Executive control is a term for all cognitive processes that allow us to pay attention, organise our life, focus, and regulate our emotions.

“Now that we have evidence that executive control processes are playing an important role in suppressing attention towards unwanted signals of reward, we can begin to look at the possibility of strengthening executive control as a possible treatment avenue for situations like addiction,” says Dr Watson.

The researchers now want to look at how executive control can be strengthened — and if that presents an opportunity for situations like drug rehab.

“Our research suggests that if you strengthen executive control you should have better outcomes. Some studies have already demonstrated that training executive control can reduce the likelihood that you will eat chocolate or drink alcohol,” Dr Watson concludes.

Read more: Quitting Alcohol Improves Quality of Life

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