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How Self-Control Works

What’s going on behind the mysterious force of self-control. Are some people born with some innate ability while the rest of us are doomed for failure. Can we learn how to improve our self-control?

Dan Ariely, below, offers some insights. Specifically, he mentions that coming up with distraction strategies might be a good way to overcome temptation. Where does the skill of self –control come from?

So when we consider these individual differences in the ability to exert self-control, the real question is where they originate – are they differences in pure, unadulterated ability (i.e., one is simply born with greater self-control) or are these differences a result of sophistication (a greater ability to learn and create strategies that help overcome temptation)?
In other words, are the kids who are better at self control able to control, and actively reduce, how tempted they are by the immediate rewards in their environment, or are they just better at coming up with ways to distract themselves and this way avoid acting on their temptation?

It may very well be the latter. A hint is found in the videos of the children who participated in Mischel’s experiments. It’s clear that all of the children had a difficult time resisting one immediate marshmallow to get more later. However, we also see that the children most successful at delaying rewards spontaneously created strategies to help them resist temptations. Some children sat on their hands, physically restraining themselves, while others tried to redirect their attention by singing, talking or looking away. Moreover, Mischel found that all children were better at delaying rewards when distracting thoughts were suggested to them. (You can see a modern recreation of the original Mischel experiment here.)

A helpful metaphor is the tale of Ulysses and the sirens. Ulysses knew that the sirens’ enchanting song could lead him to follow them, but he didn’t want to do that.  At the same time he also did not want to deprive himself from hearing their song – so he asked his sailors to tie him to the mast and fill their ears with wax to block out the sound – and so he could hear the song of the sirens but resist their lure. Was Ulysses able to resist temptation? No, but he was able to come up with a strategy that prevented him from acting on his impulses.

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Dan Ariely is the best-selling author of The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home and Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

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