Volume 37, pages 73–80 (2011)
Sweetened Blood Cools Hot Tempers: Physiological
Self-Control and Aggression
C. Nathan DeWall1?, Timothy Deckman1, Matthew T. Gailliot2, and Brad J. Bushman3
1Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky, Kastle Hall, Lexington, Kentucky
2SUNY, Albany, New York
3The Ohio State University and VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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Aggressive and violent behaviors are restrained by self-control. Self-control consumes a lot of glucose in the brain, suggesting that
low glucose and poor glucose metabolism are linked to aggression and violence. Four studies tested this hypothesis. Study 1 found
that participants who consumed a glucose beverage behaved less aggressively than did participants who consumed a placebo
beverage. Study 2 found an indirect relationship between diabetes (a disorder marked by low glucose levels and poor glucose
metabolism) and aggressiveness through low self-control. Study 3 found that states with high diabetes rates also had high violent
crime rates. Study 4 found that countries with high rates of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (a metabolic disorder
related to low glucose levels) also had higher killings rates, both war related and non-war related. All four studies suggest that a
spoonful of sugar helps aggressive and violent behaviors go down. Aggr. Behav. 37:73–80, 2011.
: : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : :
rr2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
Keywords: aggression; self-control; self-regulation; glucose; metabolism
‘‘Educate your children to self-control, to the
habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil
tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning
will, and you have done much to abolish
misery from their future and crimes from
— Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding
Fathers of the United States.
There are many causes of aggression and violence,
including provocation, frustration, alcohol intoxica-
tion, violence in the media, weapons, hot tempera-
tures, loud noises, pollution, crowding, and many
other unpleasant events [for a review see Bushman
and Huesmann, 2010]. This raises an important
question: Why is there not more aggression and
violence than there is? After all, who has not
experienced provocation, frustration, anger, insult,
alcohol, media violence, or hot weather in the past
year? Yet most people do not hurt or kill anyone.
These factors may give rise to violent impulses, but
people mostly restrain themselves.
Self-control refers to the ability to override urges,
thoughts, and habitual tendencies in order to behave
in accordance with personal or societal standards for
appropriate behavior. Previous research has shown
that poor self-control is perhaps the best predictor
of criminal behavior [Gottfredson and Hirschi,
1990]. Unfortunately, self-control is a limited
resource. When self-control energy is used it
becomes depleted, an effect that has been dubbed
ego depletion because the self’s energy resources
have been reduced [Baumeister et al., 1998].
Numerous studies have shown that when people
engage in one act of self-control, they have less self-
control for subsequent tasks [Finkel et al., 2006;
Richeson and Trawalter, 2005; Schmeichel, 2007].
Of particular relevance to the current investigation is
research showing that when people engage in
an initial act of self-control they are less able
to subsequently control their aggressive impulses
[DeWall et al., 2007; Finkel et al., 2009]. Overriding
aggressive impulses requires self-control energy, and
when some of that energy is depleted people become
Published online 9 November 2010 in Wiley Online Library (wiley
onlinelibrary.com). DOI: 10.1002/ab.20366
Received 14 March 2010; Accepted 30 August 2010
?Correspondence to: C. Nathan DeWall, Department of Psychology,
University of Kentucky, Kastle Hall, Lexington, KY 40506-0044.
rr 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
Self-control takes a lot of energy—energy that is
provided in part by glucose. Glucose (C6H12O6) is a
chemical in the bloodstream made from nutritious
intake that is converted into neurotransmitters that
provide energy for brain processes. For glucose to
become available in the bloodstream, it needs to be
broken down from glycogen during a process known
as glycogenolysis. Glucose is metabolized by the
liver and kidneys, making those organs essential for
brain processes to operate effectively. All brain
activities require at least some glucose. Self-control
processes, which involve the complex process of
overriding a strong impulse, consume a relatively
large amount of glucose [e.g. Benton et al., 1994,
1996; DeWall et al., 2008; Fairclough and Houston,
2004; Gailliot and Baumeister, 2007; Gailliot et al.,
2009; Masicampo and Baumeister, 2008].
Self-control may therefore be considered a meta-
bolically expensive process. Low glucose is linked
to poor performance on numerous self-control
tasks [Gailliot et al., 2007]. Furthermore, problems
with the use of glucose (e.g. hypoglycemia, diabetes)
have been linked to numerous signs of poor self-
control, including eating fatty and sugary substances
over a long period of time [e.g. Bolton, 1979;
Eren et al., 2003; Pereira et al., 2005; Virkkunen
and Huttunen, 1982]. Self-control is also impaired
by inadequate levels of brain glycogen [Gailliot,
2008], a metabolite that provides energy for
sustained effortful exertion. Thus, low glucose and
problems metabolizing glucose into glycogen reduce
Because self-control allows people to refrain from
engaging in aggressive behavior and also relies
heavily on glucose, one would expect that low
glucose levels should be linked to aggression. There
is preliminary research showing a relationship
between low glucose and both aggression and
impulsivity [Donohoe and Benton, 1999; Lustman
et al., 1991]. In addition, the Quolla Indians have a
reputation for violence that dates back to the 16th
century. Unpremeditated murder is common among
them. The Quolla Indians experience chronic low
blood glucose, with the most aggressive individuals
having the lowest glucose levels [Bolton, 1973].
Studies have also shown that individuals rated by
others as being highly aggressive had poorer glucose
metabolism than did individuals rated as nonag-
gressive [Yaryura-Tobias and Neziroglu, 1975].
These findings suggest a potential direct link
between glucose and aggression. Because glucose
aids in self-control processes, raising glucose levels
should decrease aggressive behavior when people are
placed in an aggressive situation. Even if people do
not experience provocation, self-control processes
should aid them in overriding the temptation to
behave aggressively for instrumental, proactive
reasons. Metabolic problems that hamper efficient
use of glucose should also relate to higher levels of
aggression, but direct evidence is lacking. The
current research aims to fill this gap.
OVERVIEW OF STUDIES
The current investigation tested the hypothesis
that low levels of glucose are related to high levels of
aggression and violence, using both experimental
methods (Study 1) and correlational methods at the
individual (Study 2), state (Study 3), and country
(Study 4) level. Finding converging evidence across
such varied methods and populations would offer
converging evidence for a link between glucose
metabolic problems and aggression.
Although several studies have linked low glucose
levels to high aggression levels, no experiments have
shown that this link is causal. One previous study
showed that consuming a glucose beverage com-
pared with a placebo beverage caused participants
to show fewer signs of frustration when playing an
impossible computer task [Benton and Owens,
1993], but that study did not measure aggressive
behavior. Study 1 sought to fill this gap in
the literature. In Study 1, participants randomly
received lemonade containing either sugar (glucose
beverage) or a sugar substitute (placebo beverage).
Afterwards, they were given a chance to blast an
ostensible opponent with loud noise through head-
phones (aggression measure). We predicted that
participants who had consumed a glucose beverage
would behave less aggressively than participants
who had consumed a placebo beverage.
dents (66% female; Mage519.45 years, SD50.97
years; age range 18–23 years; 76% White) who
volunteered in exchange for course credit. To reduce
glucose instability, students were told to fast 3hr
before participating. Only participants who reported
fasting for 3hr before their testing session were
tested (100% actually fasted).
Participants were tested individu-
ally in what was described as a ‘‘taste test study,’’
Participants were 62 college stu-
74 DeWall et al.
in which they would consume a beverage and would
have their reaction-times tested in a computerized
task against an opponent. After giving informed
to receive 14 ounces of lemonade sweetened with
either sugar (glucose beverage) or a sugar substitute
(placebo beverage). Next they completed a filler
task for about 8min to allow the glucose to
become absorbed in their bloodstream [Gailliot
et al., 2007].
Participants then completed a competitive reac-
tion time task [Taylor, 1967] against an ostensible
partner of the same sex. This task is a well-
established reliable and valid measure of aggressive
behavior [e.g. Giancola and Zeichner, 1995]. Parti-
cipants were told that they and their ostensible
partner would have to press a button as fast as
possible on each of 25 trials, and that whoever was
slower would receive a blast of white noise (similar
to radio static) through their headphones. At the
beginning of each trial, participants set the level of
noise their partner would receive if their partner lost
the competition, from 60dB (Level 1) to 105dB
(Level 10, about the same volume as a smoke alarm).
A nonaggressive no-noise level (Level 0) was also
provided. They could also control how long their
the participant won 12 (randomly determined).
A computer recorded all events in the task.
Basically, within the ethical limits of the laboratory,
participants controlled a weapon that could be used
to blast their partner with loud noise. Finally,
participants were debriefed.
Results and Discussion
Noise intensity on trial 1 was used to measure
aggression. The first trial provides a measure of
unprovoked aggression because the partner has not
delivered any noise to the participant yet [e.g.
Bushman and Baumeister, 1998]. Therefore, using
the first trial provides the simplest measure of
aggression to analyze because provocation level
need not be considered. We used the level of
measure of aggression, as in numerous other studies
[Giancola, 2003, 2004]. After the first trial, aggres-
sion converged on what participants believed their
partner had done (i.e. tit-for-tat responding). This is
consistent with many findings that confirm the
importance of reciprocation norms in determining
levels of aggressive behavior [Axelrod, 1984].
As expected, participants who drank the lemonade
sweetened with sugar behaved less aggressively than
did participants who drank the lemonade sweetened
with a sugar substitute, M54.80, SD51.99 and
M56.06, SD52.21, respectively, F(1, 60)55.55,
P5.02, d5.60. These findings offer the first
evidence that boosting glucose levels causes a
decrease in aggressive behavior.
Study 2 replicates and extends the findings of
Study 1 by testing why glucose is linked to
aggression. Because glucose is a brain food that
increases self-control, those who have difficulty
metabolizing glucose should have less self-control.
Low levels of self-control are linked to high levels
of aggression [Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990].
Diabetes is a disorder characterized by the inability
to metabolize glucose. We therefore expected
that diabetic status would be positively related
to aggressiveness, but we expected this relationship
to be indirect. Specifically, we predicted that
individuals with diabetic symptoms (e.g. difficulty
exercising self-control. Difficulty exercising self-
control, in turn, should be positively related to
would have difficulty
teers (80% female; Mage521.5 years, SD57.57
years; age range 18–54 years; 78.3% White) re-
cruited via online advertisements placed in different
After giving their consent, partici-
pants completed measures of diabetic status, self-
control, and aggressiveness. Diabetic status was
measured using the 34-item (e.g. ‘‘aching calves
when walking,’’ ‘‘shortness of breath at night,’’ and
‘‘sleepiness or drowsiness’’) Diabetic Symptoms
Checklist-Revised [Grootenhuis et al., 1994], which
assesses the number and severity of diabetic
symptoms individuals had experienced within the
past month. A diabetic symptom variable was
created by averaging the number and severity of
symptoms (Cronbach a5.87). Previous research
has shown that lower glucose metabolism levels were
associated with higher levels of diabetic symptom
distress using this scale [Adriaanse et al., 2008]. Self-
control was measured using the 16-item (e.g. ‘‘I am
good at resisting temptation,’’ ‘‘I am able to work
effectively toward long-term goals’’) Brief Self-
Control Scale [Tangney et al., 2004; Cronbach
a5.87; M53.27, SD50.75], which measures how
Participants were 112 adult volun-
75Physiological Self-Control and Aggression
well people engage in activities that involve self-
control. Aggressiveness was measured using the
29-item (e.g. ‘‘Some of my friends think I’m a
hothead.’’) Aggression Questionnaire [AQ; Buss and
Perry, 1992; Cronbach a5.95; M52.82, SD51.20].
Finally, participants were debriefed.
Results and Discussion
As expected, diabetic status was positively corre-
lated with aggressiveness (r5.49, Po.001). Glucose
is brain food for self-control, and people who have
difficulty metabolizing glucose also have difficulty
controlling their aggressive impulses.
We expected that self-control would account for the
relationship between diabetic status and aggression.
To test this, we computed how much of the variance
in the relationship between diabetic status and
aggression was accounted for by self-control. We
found that 4% of their relationship could be explained
by an indirect path between them that went through
self-control. The best estimate of the size of the
indirect path was .015 with a 95% confidence interval
ranging from .01 to .02 and did not include zero,
indicating a significant path (Fig. 1). This confidence
interval was computed using a nonparametric boot-
strapping procedure [Preacher and Hayes, 2008]. We
opted for this method because the traditional Sobel
 test assumes that the product of coefficients
that constitute the indirect effect are normally
distributed, when in fact they are usually skewed
and leptokurtic. The bootstrapping method avoids
Thus, the effect of diabetic status on aggressive-
ness was indirect. People with diabetic symptoms, as
indicated by the DSC-R, have low self-control. Low
self-control, in turn, is related to high levels of
aggressiveness. Although these results are correla-
tional, they suggest that aggression often starts when
Study 3 replicates and extends Study 2 using
diabetic and violent crime rates from all 50 of the
United States. We predicted that the diabetes rates
from each state would correlate positively with
violent crime rates from each state.
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) classifies four crimes as violent: murder,
assault, rape, and robbery. We combined these four
crimes to obtain an overall measure of violent crime
for the year 2001 [FBI Uniform Crime Reports,
2002]. The year 2001 was selected because we were
able to obtain state diabetic rates for that year
[Mokdad et al., 2003]. As a possible covariate, we
also included 2001 median income [Statistical
Abstracts of the United States, 2002], which
accounted for more variance than race. Multi-
collinearity occurred when both race and median
income were included in the model.
Results and Discussion
As expected, the prevalence of diabetes was
positively linked to violent crime rates, r5.38,
Po.007. After controlling for median income, the
relationship between diabetes rate and violent crime
rate was identical: r5.38, Po.007. This suggests
that diabetes did not predict violent crime simply
because poverty contributes to both diabetes and
violent crime. These data are consistent with those
obtained in Study 2 for individuals.
Study 4 tested whether the prevalence of glucose-
6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency across the
world would predict increased violence, in the form
of violent (nonaccidental) killings not related and
related to war. People with glucose-6-phosphate
dehydrogenase deficiency lack an enzyme related to
glucose metabolism. It is the most common enzyme
deficiency in the world, afflicting more than 400
million people [Cappellini and Fiorelli, 2008]. It is
especially common among individuals with diabetes
[Gaskin et al., 2001]. In one study, school children
with the disorder were rated by their teachers as
more aggressive than other children [Meijer, 1984].
Given its links to impaired glucose metabolism and
aggression, we predicted that glucose-6-phosphate
dehydrogenase deficiency would predict increased
violent killings both related and unrelated to war.
Fig. 1. Relationship between diabetic status and aggressiveness is
accounted for by self-control. Study 2. Values refer to standardized
76 DeWall et al.
Data from a collection of the most current
prevalence rates of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase
deficiency in 122 countries across the world were
obtained from the World Health Organization
[WHO Working Group, 1989]. Glucose-6-phosphate
dehydrogenase deficiency is hereditary and preva-
lence rates are stable from year to year across
different geographical locations. Data showing
violent killings related and not related to war by
country across the world were taken from Asso-
ciated Newspapers  for the only year they were
Results and Discussion
The prevalence of glucose-6-phosphate dehydro-
genase deficiency in countries throughout the world
predicted non-war violent killings, r(116)5.24,
P5.01 and war killings, r(115)5.26, P5.005.
Countries with higher levels of the disorder had
more violent killings, regardless of whether they
were the result of war. However, because these data
are correlational we cannot be sure that individuals
with the disorder contributed to violent killings. The
results for deaths in war would be particularly
problematic because the number of war related
deaths in one country may well be due to the
aggression of another country. For example, during
the Second World War, Poland experienced the
death of about 16% if its population almost entirely
as a result of being the victim of others aggression
[Piotrowski, 1998]. This was a higher rate of death
than experienced either by Germany or Japan.
Additionally, it is much harder to make the case
that war deaths are due to ‘‘lack of self-control.’’
Nevertheless, these worldwide data are, particularly
for non-war killings, consistent with the data from
Aggressive impulses arise frequently and with
little effort [Finkel et al., 2002]. To act in
accordance with societal standards, people must
control their aggressive impulses. Unfortunately,
people have a limited capacity to control their
impulses, and much of this limited resource
depends on the amount of glucose in the blood-
stream that can provide energy for brain activities.
Therefore, aggression may depend on individual
differences in metabolic functioning and whether
people have recently experienced a boost to their
glucose levels that provides them with mental
energy needed to override aggressive impulses.
The current studies provided consistent support
for these hypotheses. Study 1 showed that partici-
pants who drank lemonade sweetened with a sugar
substitute were significantly more aggressive against
an ostensible partner (by administering louder noise
through headphones) than were participants who
drank lemonade sweetened with sugar. To our
knowledge, this is the first study to find that
boosting glucose levels can reduce actual aggressive
behavior. Study 2 showed a positive correlation
between diabetic status and aggressiveness that was
partially accounted for by self-control. This is
consistent with the idea that metabolic problems
aggression. Studies 3 and 4 linked the metabolic
disorders of diabetes and glucose-6-phosphate dehy-
drogenase deficiency at a societal level, showing that
the prevalence of diabetes predicted violent crime
rates across the United States and that the
prevalence of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase
deficiency predicted non-war killings and war
victimization around the world. Taken together,
these four studies offer converging evidence linking
low glucose and other metabolic problems with
aggression and violence.
Implications, Limitations, and Future
These findings may have implications for acts of
violence in which people reportedly ‘‘snap.’’ People
who have chronic problems with their glucose
functioning may not have sufficient mental energy
to override their aggressive impulses, which may
place them at risk for aggressing against others.
People who have experienced minor metabolic
demands might use up energy needed for restrain-
ing aggressive impulses, which increases the like-
lihood of aggression. To be sure, consuming sugar
should not be considered a panacea for curbing
aggression. The current results do suggest, how-
ever, that interventions designed to provide in-
harmonious social interactions. Interventions that
increase brain glycogen, for instance, might help to
provide additional metabolic energy that can be
used for the self-controlled restraint of aggressive
urges [see Gailliot, 2008].
Metabolic problems might increase aggression
partly because individuals seek to be energized.
Substances that provide metabolism can be highly
sought out or can even become addictive. For
77Physiological Self-Control and Aggression
example, the addictive drug caffeine is often sought
out via energy drinks for its energy-providing
properties [Reissig et al., 2009]. Engaging in physical
aggression can energize a person by breaking down
metabolites stored in fat and muscle. The metabo-
lites then enter the bloodstream and can be used by
other processes, an effect similar to that obtained
from physical exercise. Low glucose and problems
metabolizing glucose might predispose individuals
to actions that increase their levels of arousal and
energy (e.g. eating, ingesting caffeine), which may
increase the likelihood of aggression [Zillman et al.,
More broadly, processes that have especially
enabled successful reproduction and evolution
might tend to be more metabolically expensive
[see Gailliot et al., 2010]. Evidence thus far
supports the existence of three expensive psycho-
logical processes—reproduction (e.g. sperm pro-
duction, ovarian activity during menstruation),
immune defense (e.g. cancer is metabolically
expensive and impairs executive functioning), and
self-control or higher order executive functioning
(e.g. aggressive restraint)—and all three confer
relatively large contributions to evolved disposi-
tions. Although aggressive restraint is metaboli-
cally expensive, its metabolic costs may have been
outweighed by the benefit of passing along one’s
genes to the next generation. That is, the ability to
inhibit aggressive behavior is beneficial to repro-
ductive success above and beyond the metabolic
costs of doing so.
Increasing glucose levels to adequate levels among
aggressive-prone individuals could greatly reduce
aggression in society. Police in the United Kingdom
give lollipops to drunken club-goers late at night,
which has been found to reduce the drunken
aggression and mob violence common among them.
Indeed, one report showed that the ‘‘sweet lollipop
intervention’’ decreased the annual rate of physical
assaults by 10% over a 1-year period [BBC News,
2007]. Thus, our findings may have practical
significance in terms of reducing aggression and
violence outside the laboratory.
One limitation from the current investigation is
that self-control only partially accounted for the
relationship between diabetic status and aggression,
explaining only 4% of the variance. To be sure,
multiple mediators likely exist. One possibility is
that when people are placed in an aggressive
situation, a boost of glucose increases activation in
neural regions associated with conflict monitoring
[e.g. dorsal anterior cingulate cortex; DeWall et al.,
2010] and the downregulation of negative affect [e.g.
right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex; Creswell et al.,
2007]. This increased activation in the dACC and
RVPFC may, in turn, be associated with lower levels
of aggression. Another possibility is that the
relationship between heightened glucose levels on
aggression is due to an increase in positive mood.
Although this is possible, our previous research has
shown that the effect of glucose on behavior is not
attributable to fluctuations in emotional states [e.g.
DeWall et al., 2008; Gailliot et al., 2007]. Explora-
tion of these potential mediators awaits future
A second limitation relates to the effect of glucose-
6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency on war kill-
ings. It is possible that for war killings, the killing is
carried out by one set of people with another set
being killed. Therefore, higher levels of this meta-
bolic disorder in one country may relate to more war
killings in other countries instead of more killings in
one’s own country. Though possible, we believe that
this is unlikely for at least two reasons. First, wars
involve a violence escalation cycle in which one
group of people kills members of another group,
leading members of the second to kill members of
the first group, and so on. Therefore, one’s country
amount of people killed in war depends in large part
on how many people in that country are killing
members of other countries. This reasoning meshes
well with recent theoretical and empirical research
showing that highly aggressive people create situa-
tions in which they both experience aggressive
outbursts from others and perpetrate high levels of
aggression toward others [Anderson et al., 2008;
DeWall and Anderson, 2010]. Second, the results
related to war killings are similar to results related to
non-war killings, which suggests that how much
people are killing in and out of war is related to how
many people have a specific type of metabolic
disorder. Thus, the findings related to war killings
in Study 4 offer valid evidence regarding the
relationship between deficiencies in glucose metabo-
lism and aggression.
Aggression and violence often start when self-
control stops. For society to function peacefully,
people must control their aggressive impulses. Self-
control requires a lot of brain food in the form of
glucose. Thus, people who have difficulty metaboliz-
ing glucose (breaking it down into an useful form
and keeping it at constant levels) are at a greater risk
for aggressive and violent behavior. The inability to
78 DeWall et al.
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health problems in those afflicted with the disorder
but also a risk factor for aggression and violence in
all members of society. The healthy metabolism of
glucose may contribute to a more peaceful society by
providing individuals with a higher level of self-
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