If given a choice between receiving ten dollars today and one hundred dollars tomorrow, most of us would likely opt for the latter.
This kind of decision-making process is what psychologists call delayed gratification, and we practice it every time we consciously forgo immediate rewards to reap the benefits of a more distant goal.
“No matter how bad you are at resisting temptations, there are ways to enhance self-control if you’re motivated to use them.” -Walter Mischel (2014)
When we log out of Facebook to focus on our work, or when we choose to save our paychecks to travel instead of spending them on shopping sprees, we are using delayed gratification and executing self-control.
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Self-Control Has Long-Reaching Benefits
In the 1960s and 1970s, Walter Mischel, then-psychologist and professor at Stanford University, conducted a series of experiments on the delay of gratification in children.
These now-famous studies, collectively known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, form the foundation of our current psychological understanding of self-control and have been instrumental in inciting the current wave of scientific research on the topic.
Mischel’s research has given us substantial evidence about how an individual’s ability to delay gratification plays a significant and intricate role in shaping their health, well-being, and success.
In the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, Mischel and his colleagues wanted to see if preschool children (around four-years-old) had developed the mental capacity to resist the temptation of a small reward to earn a larger reward later.
They presented each of the 653 subjects with a choice: ring a bell and get one marshmallow immediately or wait fifteen minutes and earn two.
While a minority of them instantly opted for a single marshmallow, most children attempted to hold on, for varying times, to get their reward. In the end, only about thirty percent were able to delay gratification for the full fifteen minute period, earning their second marshmallow.
Following these initial experiments, Mischel grew curious about the subsequent development of these children. Would their differences in willpower persist into adolescence and adulthood? And if so, what effect would these differences have on their lives?
A decade later, Mischel and his colleagues (2010) began to follow up with the original subjects.
They found that the subjects’ performance as four-year-olds did indeed have powerful implications on their general livelihoods. The four-year-olds who could delay gratification longer went on to receive significantly higher SAT scores. They also developed better social cognitive and emotional coping skills.
Today, the study participants are in their 40’s and 50’s, and recent research indicates that the children who were better at delaying gratification back in the day continue to enjoy numerous advantages. They excel in education, have a greater sense of self-worth, manage their stress better, and are less prone to drug abuse (Ayduk et al., 2000; Mischel et al., 2010).
Impulses and Emotions Compete with Long-Term Goals
Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) constructed the “hot-and-cool” system to explain the psychological structure of self-control. They conceptualized the mind’s capacity to exercise willpower with two opposing mechanisms: the “hot” system and the “cool” system.
The “hot” system, found in the limbic system of the brain, operates on impulses and emotions. This system is responsible for fueling our various drives, such as hunger, sex, and dominance.
The “cool” system, centralized in the prefrontal cortex, counteracts these reflexive urges through activating our cognition, engaging our thoughts about our long-term goals. This part of the “hot-and-cool” system allows us to reflect on our actions and their consequences.
Both systems are necessary as they work in conjunction and opposition. The interplay between them varies depending on the situation, and our behavior is the result of one system exerting more influence than the other. So how can we mediate this interplay and experience more self-control?
Time + Effort = Improved Self-Control
To be clear, no significant behavioral change comes easily. Years of habit cements an individual’s self-control. The most recent research done on the original participants of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment stated that the individual differences in self-control ability had, for the most part, remained constant.
Biological factors may also play a role in determining one’s ability to delay gratification. For example, individuals with more active prefrontal cortexes were found to have greater self-control (Casey et al., 2011).
The message to take away from this, however, is not that we cannot improve. Rather, we must understand that improving our self-control will take time and effort, and for some of us, it will be more difficult than for others. As Mischel (2014) himself said:
We don’t have to be victims of our biology, genes, or circumstances. People can learn self-control strategies and become active agents in determining how their lives play out.
How to Improve Your Self-Control
Here are three specific ways to try to work on better self-control. It is difficult at first, but eventually, you will re-wire your brain and form a habit that aligns more with your goals.
1. Distract Yourself
When struggling with an impulse, replace tempting thoughts with others. If possible, physically remove yourself from the situation, or at least keep the object of temptation out of sight. Then, keep your mind busy with enjoyable activities.
2. Reframe Your Thinking
Reappraise the object of temptation. Think of Mischel’s “hot-and-cool” system, and reframe thoughts that evoke the “hot” part of the system into those that stimulate the “cool” part.
Take the example of an ex-smoker suddenly craving a cigarette. The immediate reaction may be to remember the nicotine rush and feelings of release. He can redirect these “hot” representations into “cooler” ones by focusing on the objective features of a cigarette (the chemical additives, the price, etc.), rather than the sensory ones.
3. Visualize the Negative Consequences
This is not pleasant, but it can help. When facing temptation, many of us may already consider the consequences of acting on our impulse. There is a difference between being aware of impulses and running wild with them.
Mischel (2014), a former smoker, has said that he was able to drop his habit by envisioning himself as a cancer patient, however, this might be the right approach for everyone.
Learn More About Self-Control
If you’d like to learn more, Walter Mischel has written a book, called The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, in which he discusses his research, its implications on society, and his own personal struggles to improve his willpower.
Have you managed to practice self-control to prevent negative short-term desires? What are your secrets to success in delaying gratification and reaching your long-term goals? We would love to hear from you in the comment box below.
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