It's easy to believe that self control is an inherent trait because some people just seem to have it when others don't. As author Dan Ariely points out in an article in Scientific American, it may be more likely that some people have inadvertently discovered ways to distract themselves when self-control is needed.
Dan points to a study by Walter Mischel that tempted children with marshmallows and told them that they'd receive even more marshmallows if they resisted. Here's what he found:
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.
This points to the possibility that self-control may not necessarily be an inherent trait, but rather something you can learn by finding effective distractions for yourself. Looking back on my own behaviour, I'd have to agree. I'd also say that the best distractions for self-control are active ones that require you to think, move around, and actually do things. The more your mind and body is tied up in other actions, the less bandwidth you'll have available to wish you could eat that marshmallow — or whatever — right this very second.
The full post is pretty fascinating, so be sure to check it out in its entirety over at Scientific American.
Photo by Kate Ter Haar
How Self Control Works [Scientific America]