The science of self-control

As we prepare to enter a new year, now is a good time to reflect on the decisions we have made this year, and to think about how we can make better decisions in the coming year.

As the first month of the New Year rolls in, many of us will once again make New Year’s resolutions. In the past, many of us failed at our resolutions. This year, what can we change to help us stick to our commitments to living better? What does the science say about making better life decisions?

First for the short answer. Willpower and self-control are usually upheld as crucial in making better decisions, whether they be about our health, finances, or relationships. However, science is beginning to vindicate some ancient wisdom about human nature —that we are beings of habit. This means that making good decisions is not about having better self-control, but about building good habits. In fact, self-control might not be enough, and relying on it might lead you to fail at your goal.

Before expounding on that, it is worth noting that if you have made or are planning to make a New Year’s resolution soon, then good on you. According to one study published in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, simply making a resolution might already make you 10 times more likely to achieve your goal.

Polls show that the most common New Year’s resolutions are: exercise more, lose weight, eat more healthily, learn a new skill or hobby, stop smoking, drink less alcohol, read more, and save more money.

Notice that a lot of the most common resolutions are about a permanent change to one’s life. In other words, they are about habits. Many approaches to achieving them focus on self-control and willpower. However, the evidence suggests this might not be the best way in achieving them.

One reason this might be so is because our brains are composed of several units, each with their own ways to influence our decisions and behavior. In this view of the human mind, known as dual process theory, there are two systems called System 1 and System 2. The former is fast, unconscious, and intuitive. The second is slower, more deliberative, and more “rational.”

When we think about what kinds of actions will lead to better outcomes for our health and wellness in the long term, we use System 2. When we come up with new year’s resolutions, we use System 2. 

However, System 2 is often slower and more effortful. It is not our default process in coming with everyday decisions. In his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, the famous behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman describes these systems as follows: “Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortably low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged.”

As such, when we are suddenly presented with “temptations” to break our resolutions, the faster, more pleasure-driven System 1 takes over and makes us reach for that extra slice of cake, or makes us give in to a friend’s offer of a cigarette.

Given the advantage of System 1 over System 2, how do we make the rational decisions made by the latter win over the in-the-moment decisions made by the former? 

One solution might be to change your surroundings so that you are subjected to fewer temptations. In one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that the people who self-rated as having the best self-control were also the ones who reported fewer temptations throughout the study period. In other words, the people who said they were good at self-control barely used it at all. 

A more recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science backs this up. In the study, the participants who exerted more self-control were not more successful in accomplishing their goals. Instead, it was the participants who experienced fewer temptations who achieved their goals. Furthermore, the students who were subjected to more temptations also reported feeling more depleted.

What all this tells us is that if we want to achieve our New Year’s resolutions, we should not rely on willpower. Rather, we should change our surroundings so that making the right decision becomes easier.

This also tells us that sometimes, there are circumstances that make the necessary changes harder to accomplish. For example, genetic predisposition plays a very strong role in what counts as very tempting. Meanwhile, poverty limits the options of many people in changing their surroundings. This reminds us that we should be more forgiving of ourselves and of others in our attempts to become better people. We should help where we can to help others help themselves.

Topics: Pecier Decierdo , The science of self-control
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