Self Control – A Two Step Process

The Two Step Dance

Proper self-regulation is a two step process;

  • Either identify a self control conflict and proceed, or fail to and indulge.
  • If you identify conflict respond with indulgence or resistance.

With only a vague notion of intent it’s nearly impossible to identify fringe conflicts or respond properly to surprise temptations. In this article we’ll focus on how individuals can guard against ingrained tendencies to mitigate self-control and avoid goal-oriented behavior. Attention, proximity, and time frame each impact decisions in their own way, and as a choice becomes more salient the harder it is to identify as conflict and the easier it is to fall into a temptation trap.Conflict Decision Tree

Credit: Kristian Ove R. & Ayelet Fishbach

“Just One More”

Decisions against goal-oriented behavior are easy to justify moment to moment. Individual outcomes from trivial choices won’t feel like they matter unless you look at them over the long haul.

Getting a cup of coffee each morning is a rather trivial expense, $2 every morning for a convenient, fresh cup of coffee in a welcoming environment. But, when you compare that with the cost of homebrew, or even k-cups, you’ll end up spending twice as much every day. And that’s just for a single 12oz cup of coffee. The costs only go up once you get into lattes and flavored beverages.

Framing events in aggregate, over the long term, is essential for conflict identification. This is true for almost every vice that starts with, “I’ll just have one more”. We like to think that one off’s are non-consequential events. But measured together, against long-term goals, it’s easy to see the true impact.

A fun-sized candy has no real caloric impact, 70-100 calories, but when viewed as a one time monthly impact you’ll have consumed 2100 – 3000 extra calories. A full day’s worth food for most adult men. Time spent checking your phone, the extra YouTube video each night, or foregoing a walk each day have profound impacts over weeks, months, and years.

Two experiments, one in 1999 and another in 2009, identify how wide frame perspectives increase self-control.

Read et al., used lottery tickets that offered either immediate lesser awards or larger, delayed rewards. Participants were tasked with choosing between the two tickets over varied time frames. The selections involved choosing multiple tickets over multiple weeks in one sitting or choosing each ticket for each week individually. Researchers found individuals who were forced to consider multiple outcomes at once tended towards larger rewards, the opposite was true for those who had to make individualistic choices.

In a subsequent study by Myrseth and Fishbach participants were tasked with measuring their consumption of potato chips on the day the experiment was to take place. Study members were given two calendars with slight variations to make their decision from. The ‘Narrow-Frame’ calendar was laid out like a standard calendar with the experiment day highlighted to emphasize significance. The ‘Wide-Frame’ calendar lacked grid lines and had no individual emphasis. The goal of which was to encourage individuals to see days as connected and not as isolated events that happen independent of each other.

Failure to view choices in aggregate can lead to goal failure, a longer period of habitation, or an inability to accurately measure your progress.

Credit Amber Avalona
Little dated, but how it should be.

Future Self, isn’t Better Self

Common temptation avoidance phrases take the form of, “I’ll do X now, but I won’t in the future.” There’s a mental illusion taking place that says our future self will be better at negating temptation than we are now, solely through force of will. If you’ve ever tried changing a bad habit, or picking up a new one in lieu of another behavior you’ll recognize how wrong this presumption is. Yet we do it often enough to recognize it’s commonality in all of us.

External change, a new partner, job, or home are more likely to impact behavior and habit than willpower. External change thrusts us into new environments we must adapt to if we want to continue down that path, but internal motivations have to be acted upon by the individual.

It’s easy to get these situations conflated. Whether it was your choice or because of the environment you started to take the bus to work. The answer is likely both, but we’re tempted to attribute results, especially positive, to our own volition. We congratulate ourselves for good choices and tend to assume we can make good choices for ourselves later on.

In attempting to balance goal pursuit and temptation, individuals are far more likely to choose temptation first and goal second. They delay the cost associated with indulgence and also expect to resist similar or identical temptations in the future. This ends up as goal failure without recognition as the future self is expected to comply with goal pursuit, while the current you is actively failing.

Ayelet Fishbach and Ying Zhang ran a series of six experiments evaluating how participants would react to conflicting temptations due to environmental triggers.

While all experiments yielded similar results we’ll be taking a look at the final experiment which provided more real world applicability while the previous results give supporting evidence.

Fishbach and Zhang tested whether food choice was changed by presentation. University of Chicago students, who indicated their current weight was above their desired weight, were offered a choice of snacks, chocolate or fresh carrots, for their participation. During the experiment food options were either mixed together for selection or in their own separate piles next to each other.

When choices were mixed together participants chose chocolate at a rate of 53% versus apart at 29%. Experimenters suspect that when choices are presented together they are seen as complementary. In this scenario individuals opt to ‘balance’ their short and long term outlook, maximizing benefits now for delayed rewards realized in the future. When students were presented with choices apart each pile appears to be a distinct, competing choice. Highlighting the potential pitfall by keeping choices apart allowed participants to choose their high-level goals over immediate desires.

The act of balancing is a way to justify goal-avoidance. Albeit in the future, in exchange for an immediate gratification. The assumption that choices can be complementary opposes the real world view of self-control and habituation. Attempting to manage varied paths of opportunity will slow you down and, at worse, you’ll give up when it takes longer to reach you desired outcome. None of this is to say that you can’t stray from a goal, or use substitutes. Nicotine patches, cheat days, and budgeting to splurge are all forms of goal-avoidance, but they’re done purposefully as part of a larger plan to change habits.

Save to Splurge

Managing Self-Control

When considering both biases we find that proper self-control starts with the following mechanisms,

  • Individuals see decisions over the long-term, not as isolated events.
  • Decisions are consistent, individual actions won’t change much over time.

While these processes help us identify self-control conflicts they don’t necessitate our response or whether or not we’ll be able to resist. Precommitment , If-Then plans, and abstract/concrete representations of temptations all promote goal-pursuit.

Precommitment is the act of removing options from your future self. We assume that we won’t be able to resist temptation in the future and instead of waiting to find out if it’s true, we simply remove the possibility. Precommitment can take the form of,

  • A grocery shopper purchasing fruits instead of sweets so they aren’t tempted at home.
  • The commuter choosing a new route home to avoid their favorite fast food.
  • A shopaholic blocking their access to eBay and Amazon.
  • A fledgling fitness enthusiast choosing the gym closest to home so they have fewer excuses to skip.
  • Cooking a large dinner ensuring there are leftovers for lunch the next day instead of going out.

If-Then planning is a technique used in preparation of temptation and for specific events. Simply put the If-Then takes the form of, “If X happen, then I will do Y.” While we’re quick to think of long-term goals for ourselves, we often don’t take into consideration what exactly this process will look like. Instead of just “reading more” you’d say “at seven each night I’ll sit down and read for twenty minutes”. You’re using an explicit cue to trigger an action. As this becomes hardwired you stop needing a specific external marker and can start relying on habit.

Abstract/concrete representations involve visualizing temptations in a way that makes their appealing qualities less tangible while encouraging goal outcomes to take a front seat in your mind.

During the Marshmallow Test’s, Walter Mischel sought a way to increase a child’s ability to wait for a larger treat in a few minutes, rather than a smaller one now. His team had children imagine the tiny marshmallows as clouds while describing their ‘cool’ traits like size and color. These children were able to resist immediate gratification at much higher rates than those who were left to their own devices.

Identification and Response

A two-step model of self-regulation ensures that we meet our goals at every step of the process. We reduce the likelihood of tricking ourselves into indulgence and when we do identify a conflict we have ways to deal with temptation. We also realize that proper self-control isn’t only a response to a situation, but relies on identifying how we engage with our environment.

When analyzing our lives and what changes we want to make it’s imperative we understand both steps on the road to better habits. The more small successes we encounter the more durable our habits become. The identification protocols and responses outlined above lay the groundwork for successful indulgence resistance.

We’re Creatures of Habit, Especially When Stressed

Stress promotes habitual action, both positive and negative, and derails effortful action, times when we need willpower the most.

We often associate stress with the degradation of healthy habits, but research by Neal, Wood, and Drolet indicates that we’re merely falling back on comforts.

In times of stress we end up acting mindless, but what we do in those moments isn’t necessarily because of stress. Habits we cultivate, through influence or our own volition, determine our actions while tense.

What a useless process stress would be if it promoted negative behaviors. Instead it works to limit our cognitive load, automating behaviors we enjoy. In this light, stress can be seen as a signal to stop what we’re doing and take a break. It’s evident to our body we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves and we’ll suffer because of it.

As outside pressure piles on we try to mitigate the effects by drinking coffee, procrastinating, or throwing back a few cold ones because “we’ve earned it”. In reality we’re really calling on routines that don’t solve problems, and in some cases make things worse, in an attempt to beat stress.

We’ve primed our brains, over long periods, to expect certain pleasures. Thankfully, we’re in control of what our brain expects.

Reforming habits requires self-control, planning, and focus on what’s important. It’s important to note that things won’t always be this way. Once habits develop you may have moments where you struggle to stay on track, but that’ll feel unnatural. Just like subverting temptations does now.

Each decision doesn’t have to be a fight between right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, but getting to the point where you constantly follow through is tough..

Research done by, Hofmann et al., gives evidence that individuals assumed to have high self-control; frugal spenders, consistent exercisers, and those who don’t procrastinate, report having fewer temptations. Instead these individuals have habits that remove temptations from purview. They don’t feel like they’re missing out on gratification because their healthy behaviors are satisfying and ingrained.

Their immediate choices are often decided for them because of the lives they lead. It may seem like unattainable iron willpower, but it’s not much more than good planning and follow-through.

We’re not labeled creatures of habit for no reason and this research backs it up. What’s truly important is what habits we have ingrained in our lives. If we’re already limited ourselves to a single plate at dinner or started a routine of getting work done first thing on the weekend we have a better chance of following through even when times are tough.