Monday, May 25, 2009

I Have No Self-Control

Odysseus tied to the mast; image from a detail of Greek pottery. Via Wikimedia Commons, here.

OK OK let me rephrase that: I have less self-control than you probably think. I've been thinking about self-control a lot lately because 1) there was some interesting research on being distracted described recently in The Times; 2) there was a great article about the famous so-called "marshmallow test" in The New Yorker and 3) I'm amazed and astonished at my own inability to do the simplest things I want to do. Like, update this blog with regular entries. Just for instance.

In the marshmallow test, kids are given one marshmallow and told that if they can wait for a few minutes before eating, they can have two marshmallows instead. Then 30 years later the ones who waited are more likely to be Mister and Mrs. Success-in-life. Leaving aside all the questions you might want to ask about this, I want to talk instead about the strategies people use to increase their likelihood of not giving in to impulse. How, and how well, do these work?

The main researcher involved, Walter Mischel, says that that kids who are good at waiting find ways not to think about the marshmallow in front of them. They sing songs, or cover their eyes, or whatever. The kids who stare at the marshmallow, though, pondering its sweet deliciousness, give in right away. The author of the article, Jonah Lehrer, explains that knowing how to avoid thinking about the marshmallow is based on metacognition: thinking about thinking. As an example of metacogntive reasoning, Lehrer mention Odysseus having himself tied to the mast of his ship so he won't give in to the siren's song.

These two examples, though, got me thinking. Because they're actually really different. The marshmallow kids aren't changing their environment, they're changing their own thoughts. But Odysseus, having himself tied to the mast, is changing the world he lives in. He is making it impossible for himself to give in. He's not just putting his fingers in his ears and saying "La la la I can't hear you! I'm going to sing the alphabet song! And say no to marshmallows!" He's making it physically impossible to do what he does not want himself to do.

The important thing about the second strategy is it's not actually a strategy for improving your self-control at all. It's a strategy for not letting yourself give in. Once you got the ropes and all that you don't need self-control; you can't do anything anyway.

Doesn't this make it seem like a much more effective strategy? Especially if, you know, you haven't got a lot of self-control? For your average impulsive person, the more you can tie yourself to the mast, the better, right? Obviously this won't work in all cases; if you gotta steer the ship you can't be screwing around with rope and masts and all that. But as everyone knows who has tried to quit a bad habit, you can change a lot about your environment. You can not go to the coffeeshop with the pastries; you can tell your friends not to smoke in front of you; you can take your laptop to places where there is no wifi. It's not quite ropes to the mast but you see what I mean.

The article goes on to explain how some schools are trying to teach self-control. But I got to wondering about this, too. How do you know when you're teaching self-control, and when you're just getting kids used to a new set of habits? Some schools have long days of classes, with lots of rules, and they insist kids show respect for their teachers and for each other. Sometimes it works, and kids improve dramatically. Insisting on respect sounds like a great lesson to me. But it sounds less like a lesson in self-control than a lesson on proper behavior and, well, respect. Are these kids thinking about their gratification deferral differently? Or are they absorbing, from their environment, a new way of being in the world? Is there a difference? Does it matter?

At one point the researcher, Mischal, says about teaching kids self-control, "We can't control the world, but we can control how we think about it (p. 27). This doesn't seem right to me -- or at least, it doesn't seem obvious. Often we can control the world, especially when it comes to stuff like whether there is fresh produce in everybody's supermarket. And often we can't control how we think about it -- or, not altogether, anyway. Just because it's thinking doesn't mean it's free of influences.

Anyway, I'm bad at controlling how I think about the world; thinking always leads me back to the same, boring, oh, who cares, what difference does it make? One marshmallow, two. . . what's the difference? But I get along in life because 1) I am lucky enough to have a reasonable set of desires and preferences (I sometimes crave vegetables as well as cookies) and 2) I'm good at deploying the other strategies, of changing the environment and developing new habits.

I always thought if I had done the marshmallow test, I'd probably have waited, not because I like marshmallows so much, but because I fear embarrassment. Hell, the actual marshmallow test requires you to ring a bell to summon the researcher if you want to eat the first marshmallow before the time is up. I'm inclined to say there is no way at four years old I would have rung a bell to summon a strange adult. Even if 50 marshmallows had been on the line.

So, self-control? Not so much. Luck, cunning, and rote habit formation? More like it. I don't know what to say about the luck part, but happily the development of cunning and new habits is open to everyone. Even if you're a marshmallow-grabbing self-control drop-out.

Finally, in the interest of changing my environment to make myself do the right thing, let me announce here that this blog will now update every Monday morning. It's not a guarantee. But as we know, fear of embarrassment can be highly motivating.