What do you think of when you hear the words self-control?
I think of the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In this study, a child was led into a room and sat down. They were then given a choice. They could have one treat now or wait while the tester left the room for about 15 minutes, without touching the original treat, and have two treats when they returned. In the original study, the kids were allowed to choose their treat—Oreo, marshmallow, or pretzel stick—hence the name of the experiment.
The testers were studying delayed gratification. When they did follow-up studies, they found the children who were willing and able to hold out for their two Oreos/marshmallows/pretzel sticks tended to have better SAT scores and academic achievement, lower BMI, and were judged by psychologist and study leader Walter Mischel to be “significantly more competent” than their peers who were less able to resist temptation. This study has since become a go-to demonstration of why self-control is important; it correlates with positive outcomes in many areas of life.
The factors that affect self-control in the real world
But this study is also only a 2D view of how self-control works in the real world. In the original study, testers began by showing the children they could be trusted to do what they said they would do when they said they would do it. Before the true experiment began, the children were shown if the tester said they would be back in 15 minutes with two marshmallows, they would be.
In real life, the outcomes of delayed gratification are often not so clear-cut or reliable. More often than not, we’re required to delay gratification for something that might or might not happen within an unspecified amount of time. We might have grown up in an environment where promises and commitments weren’t honoured. This would also affect our sense of what researchers referred to as “environmental reliability.” Spending our lives waiting for a marshmallow that won’t arrive (or we don’t believe will) isn’t a sign of competence or rational decision-making. In fact, it’s arguably the opposite.
When I first heard about the marshmallow study, I thought about what I would do if I were one of the kids in the experiment. I think I would have held out for a second marshmallow. Not because I would have made a considered decision about deferring gratification now for double the gratification later, but through a deference to authority and wanting to do the test right. Although the outcome might have been the same that’s not so much a plus one for self-control as it is for people-pleasing.
My biggest issue with how we talk about this study (and self-control), however, is the suggestion self-control is either something we have or don’t. Also, that it is something set from childhood. As other studies have suggested, self-control and willpower are finite resources. They are influenced by a multitude of factors, from our environment, to how we’re feeling, to the time of day.
Most of all, many of the conventional discussions about self-control make it sound like a drag. It’s something we all know we should have, but it’s something that most of us struggle with at one point or another (or several). There’s no denying self-control is a useful muscle to exercise. But having negative associations with it means we’re more likely to avoid facing it head on, rather than finding creative and compassionate ways to mediate with ourselves.
An alternative view of self-control
That’s why I was fascinated to read about this new study. It suggests our level of self-control is influenced by the same region of the brain that refers to empathy and compassion.
As the article says, “Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s, and step into their shoes. Self-control is essentially the same skill, except that those other shoes belong to your future self—a removed and hypothetical entity who might as well be a different person. So think of self-control as a kind of temporal selflessness. It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.”
I like this way of looking at self-control because it flips the dull, judgement-laden, even punitive discourse that usually happens around self-control (usually summarised as: “Either you have self-control or you fail at life”). When we buy into this conventional discourse, we can still learn self-control, but it will be motivated by wanting to avoid the negative consequences of failing at life, rather than from a place of wanting the best for ourselves. This difference in motivation is subtle but important.
When I think about self-control in the context of empathy with my future self, it feels like a much more attractive prospect. I can see how self-control, rather than being something I know I “should” do, fits in with my desire to embody the values of empathy, compassion, and self-kindness.
Turning this insight into action
So what does having self-control motivated by empathy for our future selves look like in practice? Here are three practices I’ve been using to redefine my relationship with the phrase “self-control” and make better decisions:
1. Put yourself in your future self shoes:
A useful exercise when we’re struggling with self-kindness and compassion is to think “How would I respond if I were talking to my best friend about this?” We can also use this with self-control. A question I love is “What can I do today that my future self would thank me for?”
2. Imagine your future self as another person:
Visualise Future You as a different person facing different situations, challenges, feelings and living in a different context (i.e. the future). Seeing them as a separate person (and the distance and perspective this provides) makes it easier to empathise with that version of ourselves and also reminds us that there is more than just the here and now. Future Me has to live with the consequences of the decisions of past and present me, and the same goes for Future You.
3. Ask your future self for advice:
The final empathy-related practice is a combination of the previous two. We’re visualising our future selves as a separate person but we’re also taking into account their perspective by asking them “What advice do you have for me in this situation?” or “What do you think I should do right now?” Without a crystal ball, our answers to these questions will be educated guesses, but that’s OK. The more we can practice visualising our future self responding to this question and taking his or her experience into account, the more likely we are to empathise with that version of ourselves in the present.
I’d love to hear: what do you think about the idea that self-control is empathy for our future selves? How does this change how you feel about the concept of self-control?
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