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By Steven G. Mehta

Mary Poppins used to say that a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.  She was right.  Sugar can help all types of medicine go down, including the medicine for a bad temper. According to new research, a spoonful of sugar may be enough to cool a temper for a short time.

A recent study found that people who drank a lemonade sweetened with sugar acted less aggressively toward a stranger a few minutes later than did people who consumed lemonade with a sugar substitute.  According to the study’s author, Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, this phenomenon has to do with the amount of glucose in the bloodstream and brain.

Avoiding aggressive impulses takes self control, and self control takes a lot of energy. Glucose provides that energy in the brain,” said Bushman.  “Drinking sweetened lemonade helped provide the short-term energy needed to avoid lashing out at others.”

Interestingly, over several studies, Bushman and his colleagues found that people who show signs of diabetes or trouble metabolizing sugars in their bodies show more evidence of aggression and less willingness to forgive others.  This is crucial because the number of Americans with diabetes has more than tripled (from 5.6 million to 18.1 million).

“Diabetes may not only harm yourself — it is bad for society,” Bushman said. “The healthy metabolism of glucose may contribute to a more peaceful society by providing people with a higher level of energy for self-control.”

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to find that boosting glucose levels can reduce actual aggressive behavior,” Bushman said.

“To be sure, consuming sugar should not be considered a panacea for curbing aggression. But the results do suggest that people who reportedly “snap” with aggression may need some way to boost their mental energy, so they can override their aggressive impulses.”

On a related note, two other studies in the same paper showed how problems metabolizing glucose was linked to violent crime rates. Those states with higher diabetes rates also tended to have higher rates of murder, assault, rape and robbery, even after controlling for poverty rates in each state.

“This suggests that diabetes did not predict violent crime simply because poverty contributes to both diabetes and violent crime,” said Bushman “There is a real correlation between diabetes and violence.” Another study found similar results on a worldwide scale.

A further study conducted by the same researchers found that people with higher levels of diabetic symptoms were less likely to forgive others for their transgressions.

“These studies are more evidence that diabetic symptoms may cause difficulty in how people relate to each other on a day-to-day basis,” Bushman said.

This research is similar to what I have previously reported in my article, Self Control, Radishes and Change.  It is interesting to see that this study confirms the belief people only have so much patience and self control.  The implications for mediation an negotiations are interesting.

First, many mediations will go on for many hours.  I have heard some people even say that they believe starving a person during mediation will make them more amenable to agreeing to something.  I think – and the research seems to confirm – that like a cold, you must feed patience; and apparently patience likes sugar.

Second, an afternoon snack of some sort might even help the parties to come to resolution.

As a negotiator, if you are entering long negotiations, you should make sure that you bring your own food.  I have a chapter on this issue in my book, 112 Ways to Succeed In Any Negotiation or Mediation

This study also lends support to another previous study that found that people are more willing to agree to a request to pay money to a charity after eating than before.  The glucose level is changing their perception.  The same would also hold true in mediation and negotiations.  People should be more willing to agree to a resolution after a meal.  So maybe the best time to make the deal is right after lunch or dinner.

Journal Reference:

  1. C. Nathan DeWall, Timothy Deckman, Matthew T. Gailliot, Brad J. Bushman. Sweetened blood cools hot tempers: physiological self-control and aggression.Aggressive Behavior, 2010; DOI: 10.1002/ab.20366
Ohio State University (2010, December 1). Sugary lemonade may cool a hot temper. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 12, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/2010/11/101130161535.htm

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