Self-Control, Redux

In the Boston Globe Ideas section, Kevin Lewis highlights a new paper on "the restraint bias," or the dangers of overestimating self-control:

One way to enhance self-control is to avoid tempting situations. The irony, according to a recent study, is that people who think they have more self-control allow themselves to get into more tempting situations and, as a result, are more likely to give in to temptation. For example, students who were made to feel fatigued were less confident in their ability to control fatigue and were less willing to put off studying for exams. Smokers who were led to believe that they had superior self-control were more willing to keep a proscribed cigarette in their proximity while watching the movie "Coffee and Cigarettes," and, as a result, they were more likely to smoke it. Likewise, smokers who were trying to quit and who also felt they had high self-control were less likely to have abstained four months later, on account of not being diligent enough in avoiding temptation.

This research is a nice addendum to my recent WSJ piece on the muscle metaphor of self-control, which is all about the feeble nature of the prefrontal cortex and the stark limitations of human willpower. When we overestimate our mental powers, we act like a weakling trying to bench press 250 pounds. The end result is a bruised chest and an empty container of Haagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche. The moral, then, is that the first step towards increasing our self-control is self-awareness: Until we accept our frailties, we can't do anything about them.

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I enjoy your 'willpower as a muscle' metaphor, but it makes me curious if constantly exertion of willpower will eventually make it stronger. One might be inclined to expect this not just from the muscle metaphor, since mental mathematics and other cognitive abilities can be trained, but those are more specific routines than simply 'willpower'. I'm not even sure how one would go about testing willpower training...

This has been an interesting series of posts. Please accept my apologies for inserting the ME conflict in a previous thread but I had discussed the power of identity in Palestinian behavior with Sophia before and I couldn't pass up commenting on her acceptance of the importance of identity to behavior choice in her comment. Also, I believe that it is connected to this broader discussion.

In that respect, I would like to comment on this post, which I think misses an important possibility. You describe the pre-frontal cortex as being inherently weak. I would suggest the opposite - that it is exceptionally strong - but that when we wish to stop smoking or over-eating, the PFC is not engaged to assist us but typically fights against our cognitive desire to avoid "bad" behavior.

Here is the connection. I suggest the PFC serves not to deliver reasoned conclusions to our behavior choice mechanism but instead delivers emotions associated with our "identity".

Anyone who smokes and wishes to finally quit has probably done so for a long time. Same with over-eaters. Their mind has fully integrated their sense of self (identity) with the positive emotions they derive from their habit - from many thousands of repetitions going back years in some cases. This is the person who they are at the emotional level. I suggest that our behavior control system actively tries to preserve our identity in our behavior choices. I think the PFC delivers behavior-directing emotions to serve that end.

This is added to whatever addictive chemistry has occurred in the body to produce additional strong desires. Collectively these present a formidable obstacle to quitting no mater what we cognitively reason to be "the right thing to do".

Most of us include a belief in doing the right thing in our identity at some level. But I suggest that these reasoned decisions - not the PFC - are the weakling in this process. Until that negative view of smoking or over eating becomes integrated into our identity it will have little effect on our long term behavior.

i.e. the desire to not smoke or overeat must be a non-conscious emotional reaction to a violation of our identity to have sufficient potency to change our behavior - and it still must overcome any addiction chemistry.

This is not easy to do (change our self image) even when we accept the need to do so. But most who try to stop smoking or overeating do not see it as an identity change but as a behavior change - something they must prevent their "identity" from doing. That's why they are almost never successful IMO.

I do believe that the PFC can help. But I'd suggest the path is to purposely and assiduously work to develop a different self image. They must decide that "who they are now" is not acceptable, is abhorrent. They then have to nurture and strengthen this new image that has never resided in their mind - over time and with many repetitions that result in some consistent emotional reward.

It's not a matter of "accepting our frailties". It's becoming someone else who simply doesn't do what it is we wish to stop doing - it must become out of the question at the emotional level - and having our brain believe on the emotional level that that's who we now are. I respectfully suggest that what we "think" about it will have very little effect on our long term behavior unless and until it is integrated into our identity at that level.

And even if all that is accomplished - and some do it - there still may be a chemical addiction present in the brain chemistry as any alcoholic probably knows.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

Jonah, your moral of the story is spot on ("The moral, then, is that the first step towards increasing our self-control is self-awareness.")

I teach a class called The Science of Willpower and Stanford, and this is the first point I make the first day of class, and the take-home point of the entire course. You have to see it to see through it -- awareness of the causes and motivations behind self-control "failures" is the foundation for change.

Jonah you had me with the main point... and then slam dunked me with the Dulche de Leche. How did you know?

I love where you're going with this, and really enjoyed the WSJ piece. Only the consciously weak can afford to be strong is at the heart of the paradox of self development, isn't it?

Meditators quickly learn that one of the most valuable, yet painful, results of meditating is an increasing awareness of one's frailties. It is one of those things that makes mediating difficult to stick with. Those who persevere find that this awareness is a doorway to behavioral change.

By Maggie Hostetler (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink

Mr. Lehrer, on the subject of self control and regulation, I wonder whether you have looked into this strategy called "Mental contrasting and intentions implementation." It seems to be a behavior-altering technique that has data to support its efficacy.