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The Truth About Self-Control

You know I don't write all my articles myself. Why would I when there's so many other epic people out there who I think you should be reading? Today, Peter Judodihardjo, friend, colleague and YouTuber extraordinaire dives into the topic of self-control!


What trait do people who have slimmer waistlines, more retirement savings and happier long-term relationships, all have in common?

The answer, (as I assume you ascertained from the title), is high self-control. However, evidence suggests that those who appear to have high self-control, and achieve these desired long-term outcomes, are not doing it in the way that we might think. This is the topic of my latest Behavioural Science video, with the same title as this article.


How do you define self-control? Most of us would instinctively regress to the common definition that pertains to some variation of, ‘resistance to temptation’, or ‘denial of partaking in pleasurable yet harmful activities.’ And, it would therefore follow, that those with high self-control, are those who are able to successfully engage in those self-denial behaviours more often. However, to believe this common assertion would be a mistake, because how high self-controllers really behave, is quite counterintuitive.

The most famous study investigating this phenomenon is the Marshmallow experiment. Two researchers from Stanford university, brought in a bunch of 4-year-old children to be participants. The children were taken into a room, one by one, and presented with a marshmallow on a plate. They were told they could eat the marshmallow now if they wanted, but if they managed to wait 15 minutes until the experimenter came back, they would receive two marshmallows. The experimenters were testing what they called ‘delayed gratification’. Would the children be able to wait the full 15 minutes? Well, as expected, the answer for most of them was no. In this condition 75% of the children failed to wait the full time, and hence did not win the better long-term reward.

We can think of how this translates to our own lives, and our own long-term goals. Should we eat that last bit of cake now, because we’re hungry and its right there? Or should we just throw it away, because we’re trying to lose weight. Another example outside of food might be to save for retirement (a favourite for us behaviourists.) The temptation to spend our income on immediately gratifying goods is great. Spending our new pay check by upgrading to the slightly nicer car, or the latest fashion accessory, or whatever else might be the Achilles' heel of your fiscal responsibility. These all seem far more appealing than putting that money into the retirement pot for many years down the line. These long-term goals are often hard to achieve because of the overweighting of importance we give to instant gratification.

So how can we be like those 25% of kids who didn’t eat the marshmallow? How can we delay gratification to achieve those highly desirable long-term goals? There are a few strategies we’ll explore.


The first, is what those successful 4-year olds used. Which was to change the cognition about the tempting stimulus. You see, those successful few kids didn’t spend the 15 minutes staring at the marshmallow. That’s what the kids who failed tried to do. The successful kids did all they could to distract themselves from it. They fidgeted on their chair, some looked around the room, others imagined the marshmallow was a cloud or some other inedible object, and one child even fell asleep! Though young, the principles of the strategies employed by the 4-year olds can also be used by us. When the temptation is staring us in the face, distract yourself from it in anyway you can. Keep yourself busy with other activities, look elsewhere in the room, and if all else fails, just fall asleep! These temporal cognition strategies have all been proven to work in self-control research.


“When the temptation is staring us in the face, distract yourself from it in any way you can.”


Those strategies previously mentioned are your best defence as a last resort, when the temptation is right there in front of you, use these instead of relying on unreliable willpower.

However, an even better strategy would be to intervene early enough that the temptation never occurs at all. In fact, that’s what legendary psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found to be the practice of those who did appear to have high self-control and achieve their long-term goals. You see, there was a second condition to the marshmallow experiment that is often overlooked. That was a manipulation of the initial procedure that altered the experiment by hiding the marshmallow in a cake tin, so the children could not see it. Note, they could still access the marshmallow if they wanted it, but now it wasn’t ‘staring at them in the face’. With this simple modification, the trends reversed compared to the first condition. Now with the marshmallow out of sight, 75% of the children succeeded in waiting the full 15 minutes. We can also ‘hide the marshmallow’, metaphorically speaking, in order to help achieve our own long-term goals. Examples I give in the video might be to hide your smartphone in a drawer while you work, so you can’t see it. Another might be to make pen and paper notes in class rather than use a laptop, this way the temptation of checking Facebook or shopping online is removed. This is what Angela Duckworth and her colleagues call ‘Situation Modification’. It is about manipulating your environment in a way that sets you up for success, and not relying on willpower in the moment.

Perhaps most interestingly, however, is what behaviours people with high-self control do repeatedly. You see, long-term goals are exactly that, long-term. Therefore, the long-time frame of them often means that to achieve them, healthy choices need to be made in a repeated, reliable and consistent fashion. Hence, it is the practice of effective self controllers, to develop good habits as their primary weapon to fight off bad behaviour.


“Hence, it is the practice of effective self controllers, to develop good habits as their primary weapon to fight off bad behaviour.”


Ask your friends who work out regularly, how they find the motivation to go to the gym every day. I’m almost certain you’ll hear the same thing over and over again. They don’t need motivation to go, they just go. I’m sure many of them have rituals that surround this healthy behaviour also. Maybe they go at the same time each day, or maybe they listen to a certain playlist or podcast on their drive over to the gym. These are the marks of habitual behaviour, and the beauty of habits is that once established we don’t have to rely on willpower to make the right choice. In Wendy Woods carrot and M&M study, hungry participants who were first trained to choose carrots to eat in a game, also ended up choosing carrots later on, when the game changed so that M&Ms were available as an alternative option.

To live happier, healthier and wealthier lives, we should aim to improve our self-control. However, effective self-control does not rely on willpower. Instead, using our situation and developing good habits, are the best solution.


As you can clearly tell, Peter knows his stuff. If you enjoyed this article, you will love his latest video on self-control over at ‘PetesBITs’ on YouTube, where he explains more fully the studies mentioned in this article. Also, he's a great up and coming behavioural scientist, so expect to hear more from him on this blog, one way or another!


Yousuf Siddiqui
Yousuf Siddiqui
Apr 05, 2021

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Replying to

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