Being in Self-Control (Reality or Myth)

Dr. David J. Koehn Psychologist Fort Myers, Florida

Dr. David Koehn is a psychologist practicing in Fort Myers, FL. Dr. Koehn specializes in the treatment of mental health problems and helps people to cope with their mental illnesses. As a psychologist, Dr. Koehn evaluates and treats patients through a variety of methods, most typically being psychotherapy or talk therapy.... more

Being in Self-Control (Reality or Myth)


Dr. David Koehn


Taken from a series of vignettes from Psychology Today, here is a synopsis of the relevance of self-control. Self-control is the ability to subdue one's impulses, emotions, and behaviors to achieve long-term goals. It is what separates modern people from their ancient ancestors and the rest of the animal kingdom. Self-control is primarily rooted in the prefrontal cortex—the planning, problem-solving, and decision-making center of the brain which is significantly larger in humans than in other mammals.

The richness of nerve connections in the prefrontal cortex enables people to plan, evaluate alternative actions, and ideally avoid doing things they'll later regret, rather than immediately respond to every impulse as it arises. The ability to exert self-control is often referred to as willpower. It allows people to direct their attention despite the presence of competing stimuli, and it underlies all kinds of achievement, from school to the workplace. Self-control also benefits relationships as well.

Why You Lose Self-Control

One of the most famous studies of self-control is known as “the marshmallow test,” which found that children who, left alone in a room with a plate containing a marshmallow, were able to resist eating the candy in order to be rewarded with two in the future, later showed numerous positive outcomes. Notably, they had higher academic achievement than those who had wolfed the treat down immediately. The study’s results seemed to indicate that self-control is an innate ability with wide-reaching implications for people's lives. Later studies have suggested that self-control actually changes significantly over a lifetime and can be improved with practice.

There is significant debate in science as to whether willpower is a finite resource. Some studies indicate that exercising willpower makes demands on mental energy. This concept, called ego depletion, is one possible explanation for why individuals are more apt to reach for a chocolate chip cookie when they're feeling overworked. Recently, however, scientists have failed to replicate some of the studies underlying the concept of ego depletion. A better understanding of why individuals give in to some impulses but are able to successfully resist others is critical for helping people who suffer from addictive behaviors, impulsivity, and eating disorders.

How To Regulate Your Behavior

Whether the temptation is drugs, food, or scrolling through Twitter instead of working, everyone has domains of life in which they wish they could exercise a little more willpower. How can an individual build this critical skill? Recent research points to the use of rewards, routines, and mindfulness practices as possible ways to establish better habits and regulate behavior over the long-term.

Another approach is to develop an awareness of the triggers that derail self-control. The sights and smells emanating from a neighborhood bakery as one walks by can weaken determination to maintain a healthy diet, but taking a different route that avoids the bakery can fortify it. Strengthening willpower may not always be easy, but can significantly improve health, performance at work, and quality of life.

One measure of self-control is the ability to delay gratification; namely, the ability to wait in order to obtain a more valuable outcome in the future over a less valuable immediate one. In children, the capacity to delay gratification develops between the ages of three and five years old. The concept of willpower—the self-control one exerts to restrain impulses and to direct behavior toward chosen goals is getting much play of late. Many people assume that the key to improving their lives is strong willpower. If only we could find it in ourselves to exercise better self-control, we would surely be able to finally quit the junk food, cut back on dessert, exercise regularly, clear that pesky to-do list, and keep all our New Year’s resolutions. Indeed, research has shown that childhood measures of self-control predict an assortment of positive adult outcomes.

Is Self-Control An Oxymoron

This concept of willpower embodies a common fantasy of laypeople and psychology researchers alike: to discover, and get possession of, the key to life success. As such, willpower seems poised to become the new self-esteem. A magical individual trait that facilitates success and that we can all be taught to possess. However, just as in the case of self-esteem, which began with great promise and fanfare only to fizzle out eventually, a word of caution is warranted about the actual power of willpower to deliver on the hype. For one, our understanding of willpower is far from complete, and much of what we thought we knew has been put into question of late. For example, Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow studies (previously alluded to), in which children were offered a choice between one marshmallow provided immediately or two if they waited, have sparked wide interest in the topic, particularly after subsequent work found that children who were able to wait longer for the second marshmallow tended to have better life outcomes.

Alas, as Mischel himself has recently noted, “the specific cognitive information processes that enable delay of gratification have not been well characterized.” In other words, while measures of self-control may predict success, prediction is not the same as causation. Having yellow teeth may predict lung cancer, but yellow teeth don’t cause cancer. Willpower, likewise, may be a mere proxy or correlate of as-of-yet unknown causal factors. Moreover, recent research has suggested that what appeared at the time to be willpower effects (the ability to wait for a delayed reward) may have been something else entirely—namely the power of experience, expectations, and social status. Specifically, children from more privileged backgrounds (and hence less chaotic, more predictable environments) may learn that waiting is reliably rewarded. Children from poor, more chaotic environments may learn that "getting while the getting’s good" is the rational strategy.

A newer line of research from the psychologist Roy Baumeister has advanced the argument that willpower is a limited resource that gets depleted by heavy usage, as a muscle would fatigue after prolonged exertion. Derived from this idea is the notion that practicing self-control like working out the muscle should improve ability. Both ideas have come under criticism of late. New studies, some using more rigorous measures of both temptation and resistance, found no significant depletion effects. Some studies have also suggested that practicing self-control does not lead to the expected improvement. The debate regarding the exact nature of willpower goes on. Yet, regardless of how willpower is viewed, the ambition it embodies of finding one inner resource that can on its own change the life course inhabits shaky grounds.

For one, life outcomes are multi-determined, and the effects of any one trait (like any one gene) tend to depend on which, and how, other factors are in play. Moreover, conceptually, any analysis of internal processes (such as willpower) is incomplete and insufficient without a thorough discussion of specific social contextual factors. As the great Jerome Kagan has articulated, psychologists court trouble when they use abstract words to signify covert psychological processes while failing to specify “the type of agent, the situation in which the agent is acting, and the source of evidence for the ascription."

Using abstract concepts (like willpower) sans context begets confusion, as the actual experience of one agent in one context is qualitatively different from that of another. Just as it is nonsensical to say that a rat’s anxiety, denoted by a startle in response to loud noise, is akin to the anxiety felt by a bride on her wedding day, so it makes little sense to think that the willpower of a child eyeing a marshmallow is the same thing as the experience of an alcoholic attempting sobriety.

Let’s say we agree to suspend this rule of thought and look at internal processes and environmental contexts separately. It is the latter, environmental contexts that wins or influences the outcome ( competition). To the extent that those can be separated, our behavior is under situational control more than it is under the control of our inner traits. How fast you travel from city to city depends more on the roads, traffic laws, and the available means of transportation than on your personality traits.

This holds for willpower. In fact, research appears to show that people who are good at life—sidestepping behavioral traps and risky temptations, keeping persistent and goal-directed effort, exercising sound judgment—report that they rely on willpower less than those who struggle, or whose lives have derailed in some way. The benefits of self-control appear to be delivered by the tendency of high self-control individuals to adopt better automatic habits for life, thus reducing exposure to situations where self-control is needed.

The weakness of the willpower fantasy is further evident when you look at commonly considered "willpower challenges." Take obesity, for example. By intuition alone, the likelihood that the current obesity epidemic is due to some catastrophic sudden decline in average willpower in the population is small. And the evidence for it is lacking. The American food environment, on the other hand, has changed dramatically and manifestly. Your weight gain has little to do with your willpower and much to do with your food environment.

Attributing a person’s failure to resist temptation to a failure of willpower is typically misguided, and often amounts to nefarious victim-blaming. “The reason you failed to change your behavior is because you lack willpower” is a rather asinine formulation, reminiscent of the, “you were raped because you failed to resist sufficiently” argument of yore. This willpower argument may also serve to deflect attention from more important, contextual outcome determinants, such as social inequality and oppression. The focus on willpower as the culprit, it is worth noting, is convenient for those who hold institutional power in the culture and wish to keep it. So long as you blame yourself for your myriad failures, you are less likely to look for the social structural impediments that are actually undermining your progress.

In sum, surrounding yourself with cookies and counting on your willpower to prevent you from indulging is not your best strategy in the long term. Good planning (take a homemade snack for the road so you’re not yearning for cookies), good habits (take the route home that doesn’t pass by the cookie store), and arranging the environment in helpful ways (don’t keep a cookie jar in your lap) will beat straight-up willpower every time.

Tiny Habits: From Acorns To Oaks?

Could you write a novel by working on it for one minute a day? Could you create a flossing habit by starting with just one tooth? Could you develop an exercise habit that lasts a lifetime by beginning with one push-up per day? Habits expert B.J. Fogg thinks you can. In his new book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, the Stanford researcher describes a simple and fun way to change without relying extensively on willpower. While you may start with an absurdly small change, tiny habits can blossom into healthful new behaviors that could transform your life. 

Fogg states, “The Tiny Habits method helps you create any habit you want. You do this by making the habit super easy, finding where it fits naturally into your routine, and celebrating your tiny victories. Based on the research I’ve done Tiny Habits shows you exactly how to design new habits into your life quickly and easily. Through this process, you can transform your life. In all of this, you don’t need to rely on willpower. Instead, you change by feeling good.”  He further elaborates by saying in order to design successful habits and change your life for good, people to do these things:

  • Stop judging yourself.
  • Take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviors.
  • Embrace mistakes as discoveries, and use them to move forward.

Tiny Habits allow you to change best by feeling good and not by feeling bad. This process doesn’t require you to rely on willpower, or set up accountability measures, or promise yourself rewards. There is no magic number of days you have to do something. Those approaches aren’t reliable methods for change. And they often make us feel bad. One memorable feature of the Tiny Habits Method is the use of the technique of "celebration." By using celebrations at the right time, you can form a habit in a handful of days. This happens because your brain connects a strong positive emotion to the new habit. The essence is this: Immediately as you do a new habit, celebrate it! Say, “Good for me,” or “I’m awesome,” or whatever makes you feel great. When you celebrate effectively, you tap into the reward circuitry of your brain. By feeling good at the right moment, you cause your brain to recognize and encode the sequence of behaviors you just performed. In this way, you use the celebration to hack your brain and speed the habit formation process. 

To Fogg motivation and willpower get a lot of airtime. People think that if they could only find the right motivator, they would do the thing that they should do. This unfortunate way of thinking puts the blame squarely on you and your ability or inability to motivate yourself. I want to change all that. Fogg believes that we need to make it easier to connect with nature, to dance often, eat healthy food, and play musical instruments. Health insurance should cover pets as part of our family. Employers need to let employees work from home more often. We also need new programs and products that strengthen our closest relationships.

Fogg hopes people will check out the appendices in Tiny Habits. Here he gives readers extra guidance. In one section, he shares 300 recipes for Tiny Habits. In another section, he maps out, in flowcharts, the three phases of the Behavior Change Master Plan. He also lists 100 different celebrations. His biggest takeaway is: “People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.” That’s why the technique of “celebration” is the most important skill for creating habits. Every time you practice a new behavior, say, doing a push-up, figure out a way to celebrate yourself. You can quietly think to yourself: “Good job!” You can pump your fist. You can say out loud, “Yes!” However, you celebrate, celebration should feel natural to you. Your brain will thank you with a nice little spritz of feel-good chemicals, just enough to make you want to repeat the new behavior. And so, a new habit will begin to sprout. 

"Celebration" is different from the oft-cited recommendation to "reward yourself." Rewards are usually material things that you give yourself or get only after achieving a milestone of some sort. "Celebration," by contrast, is encouraging self-talk that provides inner validation during or after every small victory. “Celebration” is such an upbeat and effective technique that you may find yourself adopting it in all sorts of situations. We should use this technique to help ourselves and others create a very difficult habit-building self-confidence without realizing the brain chemistry that was involved. 

In summary, in Fogg’s Tiny Thoughts, the point is made that everyone changes habits differently. We need a big-picture goal to motivate us, something that tells me why we need change. But breaking down a larger goal into tiny habits does help build momentum for change. And the Tiny Habits Method helps remind you to initiate a change, make it easy and fun.

I hope you found this treatise on self-control insightful. The intent was to present possible courses of action to take to make your life more fruitful.