Strengthening Self Control

With so many attractive and unpleasant items in daily life fighting and demanding for one’s attention, it has become easier to be impulsive. Therefore, it has become much more important to be surer of your mind and behaviour whilst trying to achieve your goals. The ability to not give in to the moment’s temptation to achieve something better later would be a superpower indeed.

This ability is addressed by many names: self-control, self-discipline, self-regulation, willpower, ego strength. Whichever name you choose, it has been established by many studies as being essential to achieving any goal in the long term - it may even be a better indicator for success than a person’s IQ level (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005), as defined by better health, academic achievements, and adjustment in society. It is also reported that self-control predicts early mortality, psychiatric disorders, unemployment, delinquency and crime rates (Moffit et al., 2011; Tangney et al., 2004), and other variables established within many major domains of personal and societal functioning.

Studies report that individual differences in willpower remain more or less remain stable even when assessed after decades (Casey et al., 2011). To further understand the structure and mechanism of this ability, two major theoretical frameworks have been devised. In the first, individuals are said to be predisposed to either a more cognitive (or ‘cool’) or emotional (or ‘hot’) system of gratification delay (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). The cool system enables deliberated, coherent, and strategic responses (in thought or actions) and is reported to support one’s self-regulatory abilities. The hot system on the other hand, enables impulsive, emotional, and reflexive responses, and thus weakens self-control. The constant tussle between these two systems, with stress, developmental, and personality factors acting in mediation, is used to explain the individual dynamics of self-control. The second and more recent framework describes an ‘energy model of self-control’ - here, the working of self-control is based on the assumption that it relies on a limited energy resource (Baumeister et al., 2007). A number of its characteristics are hence drawn out and used to explain known observations relating to the ability.

Multiple studies concur on a ‘depletion hypothesis’, that is, the idea that self-control levels deteriorate with repeated and/or prolonged usage. It follows then, that a person can act to conserve this resource if they expect some exertion in the future: behaviour (or performance) in the present will be altered, and possible deteriorated, if a future challenge is anticipated. Furthermore, if a subsequent task is undertaken unexpectedly, it may deplete the resources even more.

Is it possible then, to reach a point where one is completely exhausted of the said resources? Even in such a situation, it is seen that given the appropriate motivation and incentive, individuals may employ some deeper reserves of self-control. This observation has a certain evolutionary significance, otherwise an individual may find themselves in a dire, possibly fatal situation if their capacity to self-regulate runs completely dry. Despite the motivation, there still seems to be a limit to which the self-control ‘muscle’ can be pushed, after which the exhaustion weighs too heavy for the behaviour made overt by one's self control to continue.

Self-control thus may be described as a limited resource and varying among different individuals. It is also positively associated with many desirable outcomes of our culture; hence one might want to find out how to extend the 'muscle' analogy further, and act deliberately to increase one's level of self-control. Several techniques can indeed be used to achieve this.

The simplest technique could be to sustain delayed gratification by obscuring, ignoring, or otherwise distracting oneself from the object of temptation. If you're trying to lose weight, try not to walk past that bakery with the delicious-looking cupcakes by its window. If you do happen to do so, keep on walking while thinking about the trip to Shillong which you were planning. Your attention is thus rerouted towards a different thought that might also elicit anticipation while saving usage of the self-control ability.

In a study by Mischel et al. (1989), it was observed that with a group of children in whose sights treats were kept that they were to avoid had much more difficulty in delaying gratification (eating the treats) than the children who did not. It was thus seen that the sight of objects or rewards might act to lower self-control. However, when an image of the same is kept in mind as an outcome of exercising self-control, referred to as the abstraction of the reward, the delay in gratification may be sustained further.

Another tactic, called the 'implementation intention' involves thinking and deciding beforehand what to do in case one's self-control is tested. For instance, someone with anger issues might remind oneself to count backwards from 100, or to take deep breaths in a situation which is likely to arouse the emotion. This would enable him or her to feel more prepared and maintain composure if the same were to occur.

Self-control also is observed as a general ability of an individual - that is, if it is strengthened in one sphere of life, like getting up at 5 a.m. for a daily run, the benefits of such exercise may be reaped in other spheres as well, like trying to cut down on smoking habits, eating healthier, or spending less (Muraven et al., 1999; Muraven, 2010; Oaten & Cheng, 2006).

Being optimistic about one's own ability to self-regulate may lead an individual to be more patient with the process of goal attainment, by experiencing lesser amounts of self-control depletion in the face of a challenge (Zhang & Fishbach, 2010). It can also be said that pursuing one goal at a time would lead to its achievement, as opposed to making a list of the multiple goals and working to achieve all simultaneously. In the latter situation, self-control depletion with respect to one goal may affect the same in other goals as well, and may also lead to development of a more pessimistic attitude which might further diminish said ability.

If this ability does diminish, however, eating foods rich in sugars might help replenish self-control levels. A study by Gailliot et al (2007) suggests that self-control depletion is associated with shortage of fuel for proper functioning of the brain, and hence not simply associated with motivational incentives. Furthermore, an experience that induces a positive mood in an individual (like playing with a puppy or being told a funny joke), is also likely to counteract ego depletion (Tice et al., 2007).

While science is yet to give us evidence of a precise regimen that would give guaranteed results of self-control betterment for any individual, it does succeed in letting us know that it is possible to improve self-control performance by regular practice of small acts of self-control. It is hence up to any person by themselves, to explore their options and work on themselves to achieve a better potential in life and society.

Yukti Ballani