In the spirit of the past Halloween holiday, I would like to talk about the undead: vampires. More precisely, emotional vampires. Are there people in your life who just sap your emotional energy once they walk in the door? Do you feel totally spent after interacting with some people? There are vampires among us, and I am actually more frightened about sitting next to one at a dinner party than meeting Count Dracula himself.
My colleague Eli Finkel at Northwestern University conducted a very important series of studies on what he calls high-maintenance interactions. In essence, these studies are about social coordination, and how the lack of social coordination can deplete our ability to exert self-control.
Self-control is critical to everyday life. With high self-control, we can limit food temptations, complete difficult tasks at work, and, resist the urge to smack a co-worker when he/she is being a bit too condescending.
The problem with self-control is that it’s a limited capacity system. Like our muscles, our ability to exert self-control can be depleted when taxed too much. In these situations, we ruin the diet, give up on difficult chores, and let our co-workers (or partners) have it! Self-control is so important to everyday life that I bet you can think of one example of a self-control failure from your own life within the past hour!
According to the results of Finkel’s studies, high-maintenance interactions put a lot of pressure on our capacity for self-control. Consider this awesome example: Finkel and colleagues asked research assistants to subtly mimic research participants (or be misaligned with them — that is, rather than getting in-synch with someone, make sure you’re out of synch) when engaged in a joint picture description task. Later, the participants were asked to play the game Operation. The key outcome variable was how efficient the participants were in removing “body parts” during the game. This makes perfect sense—Operation is a game that requires attention and fine motor control, and if you’re energy is sapped from a high-maintenance interaction, your play will likely suffer.
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