Devices: Self Control

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

In a September 15 article in Pacific Standard, David Destino writes on the powers of accountability and how a sense of being grateful leads to greater self control. Have a nasty habit? Crave the candy bar(s)? Destino says the best defense is thinking about the many positive features of your life.

Included in the article is the now infamous “marshmallow test” conducted by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. As part of the test, a group of children were told that by delaying gratification they would be rewarded by a doubling of the treat. A child who loved candy bars would be presented with a single bar, told he could eat it now or wait a bit and receive another, and then left alone in the room. Mischel and his coleagues watched from a distance and observed the techniques used to deny the temptation to indulge. The children used a variety of techniques: some sang songs, looked away or found some other stimulation to distract themselves from the treat. Mischel went further and continued to gather data on his participants and found that those who were capable of delaying instant gratification then went on to lead more successful adult lives: they had less debt, more stable families and a slew of other features that suggested the long term power of self control. From Mischel’s work came a sense of the importance of cultivating self control in people. Is it possible to teach self control?

Destino notes the popular belief that because self-control is so important the process of cultivating techniques to assist in self control are important to teach children. He notes movements like Alcohol Anonymous which focus less on the personal factors that lead individuals to dangerous behaviors and more on techniques to avoid the dangerous item of desire. If the item can be avoided then perhaps the individual can resist the temptation. But what can be said of the success of techniques? Are there less alcoholics in society? Is obesity now a problem we read only of in textbooks?

Far from it.

Instead we live in a world rattled by addictive temptations. From food to technology it seems our every human feature has some item designed to stimulate our pleasure. We exist in a world of plethora filled with countless ways to find just what we want.

Destino offers a second way to defend ourselves from temptation. Choose instead the path of gratitude. Consider what you have to be thankful for and focus on cultivating these benefits. He notes of programs that force an individual to do a good deed if some undesireable action occurs. Termed “pre-commitment” some common actions are an automatic donation to a charity if an expensive item is purchased. Would less people buy the latest IPhone if in purchasing it a equally priced donation was sent to a charity? Might the dreaded candy bar consumed require an hour of service at a soup kitchen? While such actions can seem cruel they do create a greater sense or accountability. We might think we know what’s best for us but faced with the myriad of temptations we are weaklings in the struggle. Studies now show that our self control is like a muscle: use it frequently and it gets sore. Destino writes of a study where subjects were more likely to commit an undesirable act after fighting the temptation for a plate of chocolate chip cookies. We get worn out, it seems, and need something outside of our brains to keep us on the course.

 

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